Benjamin Boone

Benjamin Boone, composer/saxophonist, has spent his entire life planning for a collaboration between Philip Levine and Philip Levine. Boone was fascinated by the musicality inherent in spoken words and he met Levine as a fellow professor at California State University, Fresno. They remained close friends for three years, before Levine died in 2015. The Poetry of Jazz is a unique collaboration between Boone and Levine that transcends the boundaries of jazz. The 14-track album, produced by Donald Brown, features stellar guest performances by Tom Harrell and Branford Marsalis. Levine, a lifelong jazz lover who grew up Detroit as a testing ground for a new generation of bebop-inspired musicians, often wrote about jazz and the musicians that he loved in his verse. Boone, an educator, composer and player who has won numerous awards, wanted to go deeper. Boone was inspired by Levine’s poetry, but also the musicality of Levine’s language and his humorous, yet still empathetic recitations. The result is a unique glimpse into Levine’s work. He is an American original who interacts like a band member with musicians. Boone says, “I wanted Phil’s poetry about Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane to be recorded.” We talked a lot about music and voice and I told Boone that I didn’t want him to react word for word. To find a core emotion, I must first determine what it is. Then, use music to enhance that quality. The music and poetry had to be equal, and symbiotic.” The album begins with a bracing shot gin with “Gin,” Levine’s hilarious and exhilarating account of a young man’s introduction into the world spirits. Karen Marguth, the singer and band respond to Levine’s recitation extemporaneously. The loose and limber accompaniment envelopes the intoxicated verse like whiskey over ice. Boone, a highly respected composer who often sets text to music and has been praised for his use of a wide and vivid sound palette when writing and arranging Levine’s poetry. A large number of California musicians were recruited by Boone, including drummer Brian Hamada and bassist Spee Koloff. David Aus also contributed compositionally. Boone’s intimate and carefully observed “The Unknowable” (Homage To Sonny Rollins) evokes the inner struggle of the tenor-sax giant’s famous trip to Williamsburg Bridge. This search is reflected in the rich, sinuous sound of Chris Potter’s horn. Another perfect casting choice is Tom Harrell, who delivers an incredibly beautiful statement on “I Remember Clifford” (Homage To Clifford Brown), while Greg Osby weaves around “Call It Music” (Homage To Charlie Parker),” which tells the story of Bird’s famous Dial session of “Lover Man”. Branford Marsalis’s sinuous vocal lines in Boone’s touching ballad “Soloing” bring to life Levine’s comparison between his mother’s isolated existence to a Coltrane solo and that of a Coltrane solo. Levine doesn’t just think about music. He never forgets his working-class roots and describes the prejudice that characterized Detroit’s industrial boom in “They Feed They Lion”, which is the inspiration for some of Boone’s most hardworking writing and playing. David Aus’s direct setting for “What Work Is,” one of Levine’s most famous poems, closes the album. This anti-manifesto is about humanity’s persistence in the face industrial drudgery. Philip Levine was born in Detroit, January 10, 1928 to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He began writing poetry while studying at Wayne State University. He was mentored at the University of Iowa by John Berryman in the mid-1950s and rose to prominence in the world of poetry before the end of that decade. He was a member of Cal State Fresno’s English department from 1958 to 1992. However, he was still active on campus until his sudden death at 87 from pancreatic cancer. Levine is one of America’s most beloved poets. He won numerous distinctions including the National Book Award for Poetry two times and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for 1994’s The Simple Truth. He was named the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2011. The Library of Congress named him the U.S. Poet Laureate. Levine worked with many musicians over the course of his career. Levine felt that the results were not always positive, which made his connection to Boone even more satisfying. He wrote about his earlier musical projects and observed that “some were disasters: Either they could not hear what I was doing or they couldn’t understand what I had written. Ben Boone’s collaboration was for me the most rewarding. It was amazing to see and hear my poetry, and to create music that complimented the words. This was my first performance to the acclaim of fellow poets. Benjamin Boone was born October 19, 1963 in Statesville North Carolina. He grew up in an intellectually stimulating home and could have dedicated himself to many pursuits. While he was a keen improviser and player of the saxophone, he also enjoyed composition. He says that he learned a lot about science, literature and visual art from his four older brothers. “So I gravitated towards interdisciplinary project like this one, which allows me to combine playing, composition and literature to create an artistic statement that addresses historical topics and current topics.” Boone, who studied composition and jazz at the University of Tennessee, received a Master of Music degree from Boston University in composition and a doctorate through the University of South Carolina. He also studied with heavyweights like Bernard Rands, Gordon Goodwin, Charles Fussell and John A. Lennon. Boone’s doctoral dissertation focused on the analysis of speech from a musical perspective. Research cited in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America and Oxford’s New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians referred to Boone. He was a Fulbright Senior Special Fellow and conducted musical research in the former Soviet Republic of Moldova. As a Fulbright scholar, he is currently in Ghana performing and writing with African musicians. His fascination with music and spoken language stems from his hearing impairment. “I hear the words of people as music, a melodic line. Listening to blues musicians speaks, for example, gives me blues lines. This fascination with spoken language allowed me to use Phil’s voice as an instrument–something that makes this project unique.” He actually applied for a position at Cal State Fresno because a writer friend told him that his favorite living poet was a longtime member of the faculty. Boone said that he didn’t know much about the campus and the city. However, a friend told him that if Philip Levine can stay on the faculty, then there must be some really great things going on there. He didn’t meet Levine after he accepted the Cal State job in 2000. It was only a dozen years later that a local film society brought them together to perform a fundraiser concert. They performed together several times over the years. Boone also used portions of Levine’s recorded narrations for his orchestral work, Waterless Music, which addressed California’s devastating drought. Waterless Music was composed for full orchestra and two amplified 44-quart water containers. It premiered in Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall on June 15, 2015. Boone is a composer and performer in jazz and new music. Boone’s music has been heard in 29 countries, and is featured on over 25 CDs. National Public Radio has broadcast multiple times about it. He’s opened up new musical and literary frontiers with The Poetry of Jazz. There’s still more to come. This album contains the first half of 29 poems Boone and Levine recorded. Boone addressed his listeners in his classic verse, writing, “If you’re older enough to read it, you know what work”; and if you have the ability to play the album, you will know what the poetry is in jazz in all its poignant and uproarious glory. from

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