Home > Events, Profiles, Reviews > The Jazz of Poetry: Brent Jarvis Launches His New Album Based on the Poetry of Dorothy Livesay

The Jazz of Poetry: Brent Jarvis Launches His New Album Based on the Poetry of Dorothy Livesay

November 2, 2009
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photo of Brent Jarvis by Darby Magill

Pianist and composer Brent Jarvis is about to launch the most unique recording of his young career: an entire jazz album based on the poetry of celebrated Canadian poet Dorothy Livesay.

Jarvis, whose previous two albums on Roadhouse Records have garnered praise from the likes of CBC’s Katie Malloch, had never even heard of Livesay when a friend made the suggestion that he try writing music to her words.

Composers have certainly been known to turn poems into songs before (Donovan and Loreena McKennitt and their work with Yeats and Shakespeare come to mind as contemporary examples).

In the jazz world, however, these links have generally been restricted to poets referencing jazz artists in their poems, reproducing the sound and feel of improvisational music in their writing, or actually integrating live music into their readings.

The History of Jazz and Poetry

The relationship between jazz and poetry began in the 1920s and blossomed in the 40s and 50s when beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who hung out in New York clubs listening to the likes of Charlie Parker, completely embraced the language and lifestyle of bebop, incorporating it fully in their lives and their work.

Kerouac’s novel On the Road (written in three days) and Ginsberg’s long poem Howl, for example, were both inspired by the improvisational brilliance of players like Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk.

But with Daedelus: poetry by Dorothy Livesay, Jarvis has done something completely different. He’s taken the words of a poet and turned them into lyrics for original jazz tunes, written in standard jazz and blues forms. The words have inspired the music, rather than the music inspiring the words, and he’s employed traditional as opposed to avante garde forms.

The Birth of an Album

Jarvis says he was apprehensive at first when the friend loaned him a collection of Livesay’s poems. “The book sat on my piano for awhile, and then I realized that since she had loaned me the book I actually had to do something.”

One afternoon he opened up the book, selected a short poem at random, and wrote a song. “I was really surprised and really liked the music I’d written.”

And so began a three-year project that saw Jarvis turn ten of Livesay’s poems (and one of Oscar Wilde’s) into a recording that features three of the west coast’s busiest rhythm players (bassists Ken Lister and Sean Drabitt, drummer Jesse Cahill), two well-respected west coast vocalists (Melinda Whitaker and Anne Schaefer), and, of course, Jarvis himself on piano.

The project took three years in part because Jarvis did much more than simply compose and record the tunes. Besides having to seek permission from Livesay’s estate (she died in Victoria in 1996 ) and publisher, he actually built the microphones for recording and designed all of the artwork for the CD insert). Jarvis says he undertook the project with the intention “of putting everything I can into this.”

The Result

Jarvis’ dedication – and the stellar work of the musicians he recorded with – certainly show in the final product. Jarvis has produced a fine collection of contemporary standards that feature compelling melodies inspired by Livesay’s evocative words, along with engaging, sensitive improvisational work that extends and develops the songs beautifully.

One tune, in particular, the title track Daedalus, featuring vocalist Melinda Whitaker, stands out as a perfect marriage between melody and word, but all these songs, like the poems that inspired them, demand and deserve careful listening.

Daedalus is an album that will repay such close attention with the delight that can only come from the appreciation of art.

Jarvis launches the album in Vancouver this Thursday, Nov. 5 at the Cellar (8:30 and 10:15/$10) and in Victoria this Friday, Nov. 6 at Hermann’s (8:30/$15), with Ken Lister on bass, Jesse Cahill on drums, and Melinda Whitaker and Anne Schaefer on vocals.

A concert hosted by the music and English departments at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo is also planned for January.

For more information visit Jarvis’s website here.

– Rick Gibbs

Categories: Events, Profiles, Reviews
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  1. November 6, 2009 at 10:28 am
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