Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the February 14,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Jazz and Poetry, Perfect Together
Jazz singer Pamela Knowles is a firm believer in the
power of fate. How else could she explain an American musician living
in Australia crossing paths with an eminent American poet, and the
two then collaborating on an album of original songs? "Thirteen
Kinds of Desire," released in December on Knowles’ own Cornucopia
Label, features the lyrics of Yusef Komunyakaa set to music by
Komunyakaa, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1994, joined
the creative writing faculty at Princeton University in 1995. The
university will host Knowles and her five-musician ensemble in a free
performance of "Thirteen Kinds of Desire," in Richardson
on Monday, February 19, at 7:30 p.m.
It was while Knowles was living in Australia and performing at the
1996 Kiama Jazz Festival in Sydney that she first heard Yusef
reciting his poetry. "I was waiting to go on. I didn’t know who
he was, but he read with a jazz pianist behind him," says Knowles,
in an interview from her New York apartment.
"For a long time I had been putting out that I wanted my music
to take me to a new place. I loved the jazz standards and classics,
but it was all other people’s stuff, and I really missed the community
of theater. I was asking myself, Where is my music taking me? What
if I wrote my own words?"
"If you ask the question, the universe responds. So as I was
offstage, the sound — the timbre of his voice, the power of his
voice — went to a very deep place within me. I was so struck by
the power of words to take you so deep inside, I had an epiphany."
After the show, Knowles asked Komunyakaa if they could get together
to talk. "We met and talked about life and art and jazz. We talked
about how, so much of the time, jazz songs tend to veer toward the
sentimental and romantic. Why aren’t they political, we wondered.
What would be important to say if we were to write songs?" The
two reminisced back to the 1960s when songs became a powerful vehicle
for social and political commentary.
"We kept talking and Yusef started to hand me these lyrics. And
by the time he left Australia, six months later, there were 13 of
them. And I realized I had an opportunity handed to me on a silver
platter. It was as if I had asked the universe and the universe had
answered, `Well, would 13 poems by a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet
Knowles left Australia nine months ago to return to New York after
living 13 years in Sydney, with five years in London and four years
in Paris before that. "I was living in Paris when I went to visit
my sister in Sydney for a month and wound up staying. Now I’ve brought
my 22-year musical odyssey back to New York," she says. "I
don’t feel American any more, but I’m so grateful that my music took
me outside my own culture."
Knowles grew up in Westchester, New York, and in Great Barrington,
Massachusetts. Her father worked in shipping insurance, but in his
younger days he had been a Whiffenpoof at Yale. "He had a lot
of rhythm and loved jazz," says Knowles. "My mother was a
brilliant caricaturist who had this wonderful ability to capture the
essence of somebody in a few lines," adds Knowles who attended
Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, where she majored in
She went on to train as an actress at the American Conservatory
and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and spent five years
working in New York before she began to realize her long-held dream
of becoming a jazz singer. That, too, she says, was the product of
"When I was seven years old I heard Peggy Lee singing in `The
Lady and the Tramp’ movie and the timbre of that voice went directly
to my heart. I fell in love with that voice — its soothing,
vibrations gave me a heart-opening experience."
"On my 10th birthday, my father took me to the Basin Street East
Theater in New York to hear Peggy Lee sing. That’s when it became
clear to me that this is what I wanted to do. That image has been
so clear to me, to live out that fantasy. That early experience was
fate, although I didn’t live it out until much later."
Knowles has been featured with Claude Bolling’s Big Band, in concert
with the with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, the Manly Jazz
Festival, Sydney Town Hall, and in concert with Nat Adderly and Don
Burrows. Her two previous CDs are "Love Dance" and "Boite
Admired for his vivid imagery and rhythmic, vernacular language, Yusef
Komunyakaa has published 11 books of poems. He was born and raised
in segregated Bogalusa, Louisiana, and has said that the jazz and
blues he heard as a child inform his poetry. Among his early literary
influences was the Bible, which he read through twice as a young
"The hypnotic biblical cadence brought me close to the texture
of language, to the importance of music and metaphor," he has
said. He began to love poetry in elementary school where he was
to the verse classics of English literature, and at 16 discovered
James Baldwin’s essays, "Nobody Knows My Name," which inspired
him to become a writer.
Komunyakaa won the Pulitzer for "Neon Vernacular." His most
recent collection, "Talking Dirty to the Gods," was nominated
this month for the 2000 National Book Critics Circle award. His next
volume, "Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems," is due to
be published this month. He also recorded a CD in 1998, "Love
Notes from the Madhouse," in which he reads his poetry to
by John Tchicai and his jazz ensemble.
The new album "Thirteen Kinds of Desire" opens with free-form
percussive hisses and jangles that sound like a deeply inhaled breath,
followed by the rumbles of the junkyard. "Satyrs and dryads /
skip through the trees / under billboards / and towering want ads
/ Those color thieves," sings Knowles. The song darts through
a series of asymmetrical phrases until the beat settles into something
more conventionally jazzy.
Knowles has a rich, clear singing voice, great diction, and lush
that gives substance to Komunyakaa’s imagistic and verbally convoluted
poems. She also has a scat-singer’s touch, and there’s an improvised
air to the repeated verses and phrases that swirl around the song’s
center. The rhythm section is the backbone of her jazz arrangements.
The album’s title can be found in the song, "Incantation."
There are thirteen
Kinds of desire
One’s lit by fire
And all the others
Will break your heart.
in matching melodies and moods to these poems. The songs also have
a strong international air. Listening to "Mirage," for
a sizzling Josephine Baker invocation in which the poet thinks he
sees the African-American cabaret artist "slowly walking her
Chiquita" on the streets of Paris, one feels one might actually
be there, too. Another strong song is set the lines, "Have you
ever been shot down by love… cut down in the middle of a city where
you can’t buy an ounce of pity with a love chant."
"When Yusef left me with the lyrics, he let them go. I felt so
challenged by this opportunity, I knew I had live with them for a
year," says Knowles. "It was a huge challenge how to create
environments and atmosphere for each song that was appropriate for
these lyrics. How could I bring them to life in the most authentic
way? I had to show up as a woman, as human being, and as an actress
and really connect to these lyrics to bring them alive."
On the album Knowles is backed by a sextet of Australia musicians
who weave music around the songs’ verses. Since no single pianist
had time to devote to the entire project, she worked with three.
Matt McMahon, Alister Spence, and Jann Rutherford each helped Knowles
develop melodies and rhythms to suit the lyrics. Knowles worked with
bassist Adam Armstrong, Simon Barker, drums, Fabian Hevia, percussion,
and Warwick Alder on trumpet to "take the arrangements to the
"Australia is like a big desert. I created a lot of space for
myself there. It’s a very open place. I slowed down, got off the fast
track, and even let go of music for a couple of years. I started
a spiritual practice and I produced all three of my CDs there."
Although Australia does not have a large jazz community, Knowles says
"there are some wonderful jazz musicians. They’re not totally
attached to the American tradition, which I find refreshing. Australia
is a non-traditional place, and these are independently-minded
They’re irreverent in the nicest sense of the word."
The debut performance of "Thirteen Kinds of Desire" was at
the Jazz Pub in New York in September, and there have been two
performances. "For me, it’s an evolving jazz theater piece. It’s
so much fun to do live," she says. "It calls for a lot of
individual interpretation, and the musicians can pour themselves into
it. My goal is to tour to universities because of the way it crosses
over into jazz, creative writing, voice, and theater."
— Nicole Plett
Vocalist Pamela Knowles performs from her new CD, "Thirteen Kinds
of Desire." Free. Monday, February 19, 7:30 p.m.
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