Joshua Tehee

Philip Levine’s posthumous poetry jazz mashup is out now

Poet Philip Levine, right, and musician Benjamin Boone in the studio working on “The Poetry of Jazz.”
Poet Philip Levine, right, and musician Benjamin Boone in the studio working on “The Poetry of Jazz.”

Very often, when poets get together with musicians, there’s a reactionary thing that happens.

The band just sort of plays to the reading.

And that wasn’t going to work for Benjamin Boone. Not when he was collaborating Philip Levine, a Pulitzer Prize winner and National Poet Laureate who wrote tributes to the likes of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Not when Levine was at least partially responsible, on the basis on his name alone, for bringing Boone to Fresno State, where he’s taught music for close to 20 years.

“I thought Philip’s poetry deserved better than that,” says Boone, talking on the phone from Ghana in western Africa where he is currently working as a Fulbright Scholar.

“I wanted to amplify the music he was creating with his voice.”

So, that’s what you hear on “The Poetry of Jazz,” the 14-track collaborative album that’s set for release on Origin Records next spring. The album features a cadre of Boone’s Fresno friends (David Aus, Brian Hamada and Karen Marguth) and guest stars (Branford Marsalis, for one) – and is one of Levine’s last pieces of work before his death in 2015.

It incorporates a range of Levine’s poems – from his humorous ode to alcohol, “Gin,” to 1968’s “They Feed They Lion,” in which the writer reflects on the race riots that took place in his hometown of Detroit.

Originally, “The Poetry of Jazz” was conceived as a one-off performance for a local fundraiser. It was an exhilarating and terrifying experience, as Boone remembers it. Levine showed up late and hadn’t rehearsed with the band. “He said ‘Why do we need to rehearse? What could go wrong,’ ” Boone says, in an impersonation of the poet.

But the performance proved fruitful for both the musician and the writer. Levine later said it was the most satisfying collaboration he’d had with a musician.

“His ability to both hear and ‘get’ my writing was astonishing,” he wrote about Boone.

In composing the project’s 14 tracks, Boone read most, if not all, of the poet’s published works. He also got access to a few unpublished pieces, stuff that had never been heard or seen before. Levine was holding on to it, for just this kind of project, Boone says.

He tracked down recordings of Levine’s live readings.

He listened in for the melody in the words.

That’s the thing about Levine, Boone says.

The way he modulated his voice, his use of musical devices, “He read like a saxophone player.”

Joshua Tehee: 559-441-6479, @joshuatehee