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

Knowles.

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

Auditorium,

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

Komunyakaa

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

listening

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

do?’"

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

theater.

She went on to train as an actress at the American Conservatory

Theater

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

"fate."

"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,

intimate

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

de Jazz."

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

teenager.

"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

introduced

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

accompaniments

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

intonation

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."

They say

There are thirteen

Kinds of desire

One’s lit by fire

And all the others

Will break your heart.

Komunyakaa’s lyrics are always exciting and Knowles never slacks

in matching melodies and moods to these poems. The songs also have

a strong international air. Listening to "Mirage," for

example,

a sizzling Josephine Baker invocation in which the poet thinks he

sees the African-American cabaret artist "slowly walking her

leopard

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.

Pianists

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

next level."

"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

developing

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

artists.

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

subsequent

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

Thirteen Kinds of Desire, Richardson Auditorium,

609-258-4712.

Vocalist Pamela Knowles performs from her new CD, "Thirteen Kinds

of Desire." Free. Monday, February 19, 7:30 p.m.


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