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Frank Carlberg Uncivilized Ruminations Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

Finnish pianist puts poetry to good use on this fusion of words and rhythms.

Bill Tilland 2011

In the mind’s eye, a poetry/jazz synthesis usually reduces itself to images of the goateed beatnik (or tweedy professor) reciting verses while a flute and stand-up bass offer gratuitous flutters and thumps. The poetry is always front and centre, with the jazzy sounds merely supplying atmosphere. It is much less common for a jazz ensemble to work with existing poetry and integrate it into a legitimate musical context. Perhaps the most well-known example of this comes from soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and his collaborations with his wife, singer Irene Aebi. However, Finnish-born pianist/composer Frank Carlberg (who actually toured with Lacy early in his career) is the preeminent current practitioner of this art form.

On past recordings, Carlberg has appropriated material from a diverse group of modern writers, including Wallace Stevens, Jack Kerouac and Robert Creeley. Here, he features poems from countrymen Anselm Hollo and Kai Nieminen (in English), plus one from Detroit poet and novelist Jim Gustafson and one "found" piece (Lunatics) from an 1852 medical journal. Carlberg’s methodology, on this and previous recordings, is to select short, aphoristic poems and then create a loose musical framework around them which is itself of sufficient interest that the immediate apprehension of the poem is not necessary for enjoyment. Initially, the vocals – rendered by the talented Christine Correa – function nicely as vocalise. But lines and stanzas are usually repeated within the piece and the full understanding of music and text is incremental, often yielding maximum impact only after several iterations.

The poems themselves are a mixture of mordant humour and social criticism. One piece by Nieminen, Old Age, is simply the repeated line "Old age comes and goes, just as youth did. And then?" The closing piece by Hollo, Pygmy Hut, is a charming bit of nonsense wherein heavy drops of rain are described as making a "plopping sound" as they "hit the poodles". Lunatics simply lists supposed causes of lunacy circa 1852: "Crimes, remorse and despair / Drunkenness. Ambition / Born idiots. Religious enthusiasm."

None of this would work nearly so well if Carlberg and his band were not top-notch musicians and if he was not such a skilled composer and arranger. His music is full of quirky surprises – and is designed to complement the poems, although not in any obvious, programmatic fashion. There’s multi-tracked mumbling and wailing from Correa, piano crashes from Carlberg, and Chris Cheek contributes some very nice soloing on tenor sax. Correa can deliver her lines as if she was speaking in tongues. The closer utilises a New Orleans funk rhythm and features some fine soloing from both Cheek and alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher, as well as drummer Michael Sarin. Carlberg has obviously carved out a very creative niche with his poetry/jazz combinations – and arguably nobody does it better.

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