Jazz and poetry went through a shotgun wedding ceremony in the late 1950s but were separated soon after it was realized that the poets and the music were rarely compatible.
There was one memorable revival in 1964 when Cleo Laine recorded her "Shakespeare and All That Jazz" album (long out of print), with most of the music composed and performed by John Dankworth.
There was a certain logic here, since the Bard and the blues had a common element: iambic pentameter. Take, for example, a couplet from "Macbeth":
I will not be afraid of death and bane
Till Birnam Forest comes to Dunsinane
and compare it to a typical, age-old blues strain:
I love to hear my baby call my name
She calls so sweet and calls so doggone plain.
Regardless of meter, however, given a singer with the essential understanding of the verse, and an accompaniment with inherent melodic validity, the mating can indeed work, as the Dankworths have shown in a newer and even more ambitious venture, "Wordsongs" (Philips 830 460-1).
In this two-LP set, the first two sides are devoted to Shakespeare, mainly in updated treatments of materials from the old album. Though Dankworth wrote almost all the music, there are notable exceptions: Two sonnets have music borrowed from the Shakespeare suite "Such Sweet Thunder" by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
Completing the album is a grab-bag of wordsongs by T. S. Eliot, John Donne, William Makepeace Thackeray, e. e. cummings and others, including two latecomers by Spike Milligan, whose satirical "English Teeth" is a comic gem.
Dankworth's themes (and solos on clarinet or alto sax) are unpretentiously apt throughout. As for Laine, whether displaying her leapfrog range on "Take All My Loves" or singing "Sun and Fun," Sir John Betjeman's song of a nightclub proprietress, she is stupendous. In "The Complete Works," a Dankworth device, she manages incredibly to swallow Shakespeare's entire play output, title by title, in 70 seconds.
Not all the vehicles work; W. H. Auden's "Tell Me the Truth About Love" is too cute by far, though it happens to have one of the best and most buoyant tunes.
In the upward curve of Cleo Laine's career, this is without doubt her arc de triomphe . 5 stars.
"JOURNEY TO THE URGE WITHIN." Courtney Pine. Antilles/Island 8700. Since the Dankworths' first successes, few jazz artists from England have come to prominence. Courtney Pine has become the symbol of an important young generation of black British jazzmen. Born in London of Jamaican parents, Pine escaped from the limitations he found in reggae and funk, studied furiously and began climbing the heights to jazz, as composer (seven of the 10 cuts), tenor and soprano saxophonist (four cuts each) and bass clarinetist (two).
No two numbers are alike in size, instrumentation, or concept. Several have wordless vocal effects. Though Pine says, "I think a black British style is going to evolve," what one hears is a heady mix of influences, principally John Coltrane (aptly, on "I Believe," the pianist evokes McCoy Tyner). Pine, who has already attracted enough interest to tour with Elvin Jones and sit in with Art Blakey, will probably be in the U.S. in June with Charlie Watts' band at the Playboy Festival. Meanwhile, he shows as much promise at 22 as Wynton and Branford Marsalis did at the same age. 4 stars.
"POWER OF THREE." Michel Petrucciani. Blue Note BL 85133. Recorded live at the Montreux Festival, this is primarily a duo encounter in which the French pianist is empathetically mated with the guitar of Jim Hall. Both display, in their solos and interplay, the power of three values: intelligence, eloquence and elegance. Important, too, are the guest appearances by Wayne Shorter, who in one calypso-oriented track shows a restrained, almost introvert aspect of his personality on tenor sax. 4 stars.
"PHANTOM NAVIGATOR." Wayne Shorter. Columbia 40373. It is odd that Shorter makes a more profound impression on the above Petrucciani set than in his own new album. This group bears a somewhat closer resemblance to Weather Report than did his previous LP; it is replete with various synthesizer and keyboard players, along with vocal touches. The creative level simply does not reflect Shorter's talents to optimum effect. 2 stars.
"TRIO MUSIC, LIVE IN EUROPE." Chick Corea. ECM 1310. As has often been the case in Corea's more conceptually valid ventures, this is less a piano album with rhythm than a series of performances by a sensitively integrated trio, with Miroslav Vitous' bass and Roy Haynes' drums as central forces. Only the drum solo piece, "Hittin' It," is expendable. The two Corea originals, three standards and Scriabin's "Prelude No. 2" combine authority with vision. 3 1/2 stars.