Friends of mine have sometimes complained about jazz’s lyrical landscape. For those steeped in standards, the idiom can feel like a wash of “My Foolish Hearts” and “Body and Souls.” No wonder that most of my cliché-averse colleagues at school preferred instrumental jazz, with its angularity and friendliness to experimentation.
Of course, there’s nothing cliché about the way Theo Bleckmann or Kurt Elling interpret the old repertoire, but there seems to be room for new kinds of lyrics in jazz. Charging into this gap have been John Hollenbeck, who set William Blake in Joys and Desires (Intuition, 2006), and more recently, Nicholas Urie. Urie’s first release, Excerpts from an Online Dating Service (Red Piano, 2009), set personal ads from across North America. His most recent release, My Garden (Red Piano, 2011) sets selected poems by Charles Bukowski, the late Los Angeles-based poet whose brash, postmodern verses have become favorites of many young artists at the beginning of the 21st Century.
Urie’s Bukowski selections are brief. The longest, “Winter: 44th Year,” includes only 29 short lines; the shortest, “Round and Round,” only nine words. The feat, then, is how Urie stretches such concise material to fit his through-composed, extended compositions. Repetition is key to his approach. “Round and Round” takes its cue from the text’s title, cycling “You have my soul / and I have your money” in an asymmetrical 9/8 time signature before Frank Carlberg develops the mechanistic theme on the Rhodes, adding bebop language to the mix as he goes. Horn backgrounds enter, first punctuating, then tying knots around Carlberg’s solo, eventually strangling it in a contrapuntal crescendo before releasing their grip to Kenny Pexton’s tenor saxophone solo.
Urie has an acute sense of drama, allowing his pieces to blossom thematically over long periods of time, whether through themes, solos, or background figures. “Round and Round” ends at peak density, with saxophone improvisation, vocal improvisation, brass stabs, and the vocal theme all happening simultaneously. So skilled is Urie’s writing that none of this density compromises clarity; never does his ensemble, for all its chaotic rollicking, sound muddy.
Those who see jazz music as a strictly modal enterprise should check out the title track, “My Garden,” with its wandering chromaticism. After an opening trumpet solo, Urie weaves the poem’s first stanza upon itself, blurring beginning and end. Christine Correa’s voice delivers the poem in melancholy drips, oozing “pain is a flower / pain is flowers / blooming all the time.” Solos by John Carlson on trumpet and Alan Ferber on trombone, though, show what a sweet pain this can be.
My Garden is a thematically compact, vivid recording that rewards concentrated listening. Urie’s ensemble evokes everything from coy humor in “Lean” to fiendish courage in “Lioness.” The music’s scope is at least as large as that of the poetry, and the combined effect of the two make this one of my favorite recordings in any genre of the last two years.