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Quiet Riot 

A famed drummer and a former poet laureate find common ground

Published April 20, 2011 at 6:17 a.m.

Left to right: Robert Pinsky,  Rakalam Bob Moses and Robert Douglas Gay
  • Left to right: Robert Pinsky, Rakalam Bob Moses and Robert Douglas Gay

Though it is tempting to refer to drummer Rakalam Bob Moses’ collaborations with former United States poet laureate Robert Pinsky as “jazz,” Moses would prefer you didn’t.

“I don’t call what we’re doing jazz,” Moses says during a recent phone call. “The truth is, most of the jazz I hear now is hardly improvised at all. It’s really more another form of classical music. It’s stuff that’s been learned, memorized and recited.”

So how does Moses — whose work with the likes of vibraphonist Gary Burton, guitarist Pat Metheny and vocalist Sheila Jordan could certainly qualify as jazz — define his latest endeavor? He invents his own term.

“I prefer to think of music more as an ‘incital,’” he says. “Like, maybe you have an insight, or perhaps incite someone to riot or burn the place down.”

It’s doubtful that Moses, Pinsky and saxophonist Robert Douglas Gay will incite folks to torch Burlington’s First Unitarian Universalist Society Church when they perform there this Thursday, but there’s a distinct possibility the collaboration will provide listeners with insight about the kinship between poetry and music.

Pinsky will read from his new book, Selected Poems, while his partners will improvise an accompaniment. According to Moses, they plan nothing ahead of time. They simply play off each other and see what happens.

“The central idea is listening,” writes Pinsky in a recent email. “Good musicians listen to one another, intently. I try to listen to what each musician does, and to the ensemble, and they listen to me. You try to make what you do responsive to what you hear.”

“It’s funny even calling this thing a poetry-and-jazz performance,” says Sean Witters over a cup of hot cider at Muddy Waters. Witters is a musician and a professor of English at the University of Vermont. He echoes Moses’ thought as he holds forth on what he perceives jazz and poetry to signify to those who don’t follow them regularly.

“Both jazz and poetry have all these clichés associated with them as separate entities,” Witters explains. “That poetry is an effete and inward-turning discipline that’s utterly removed from the world, and that jazz is this very insular, intellectual form of music that’s, again, isolated from the world.”

He suggests that combining the idioms, as Pinsky and Moses have, affords listeners a chance to see beyond those misperceptions.

Witters aims to help audiences do just that, if only for an evening. He arranged the upcoming gig with the help of Tom Simone, a fellow UVM professor who has nurtured the English department’s Music and Literature performance series.

Witters was researching possible additions to the series and called his old friend Moses. When he learned Moses had been working with Pinsky, he knew it was a perfect match.

“Pinsky’s really committed to this idea that poetry is supposed to be heard,” Witters says. “Poetry read on the page itself is radically different from that which we experience when we’re in a room with someone reading it dynamically, inflecting it, transforming it, stretching out the lines, compressing the lines. You just feel the poem in a different way.”

Moses agrees. “To hear the person who wrote the poem speak it to you is very different than reading it from a book,” he says. “It’s like a good friend talking to you intimately, except they’re incredibly eloquent. The music just enhances that, I think.”

Pinsky and Moses met several years ago when Pauline Bilsky, executive director of JazzBoston, asked them to play a benefit for the organization.

“Bob and I hit it off at once,” Pinsky recalls. “I remember we started trying poems and music together right away.”

Moses agrees that the collaboration worked from the start. But he observes that Pinsky has grown “more musical” as they’ve worked together, that the poet’s rhythm has become “sympathetic with the musical content.

“If you didn’t understand a word or didn’t speak English, you would like the sound of it,” says Moses of Pinsky’s lyrical cadence. “It almost sounds like a horn player riffing over what we’re doing.”

Pinsky actually played sax as a young man. Though he hasn’t performed in front of a crowd for decades, he clearly revels in the interplay onstage with Moses and Gay.

“The surprises, the illuminations, the music of it, the feeling of a joy I had in my teens and twenties, the joy of making music with other musicians,” Pinsky says. “That significant pleasure of my youth, something I thought was done with and over, has returned in an unanticipated way. I love that.”

Want to hear for yourself?

Robert Pinsky, Rakalam Bob Moses and Robert Douglas Gay appear at the First Unitarian Universalist Society Church in Burlington as part of UVM’s Music and Literature Series on Thursday, April 21, at 8 p.m. Free.

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Matt Bushlow


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