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Speaking Jazz

Poetry gets physical as Pinsky jams with musicians


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In the video above, Robert Pinsky recites his poem “Antique,” accompanied by the BU Jazz Combo. Pinsky talks about the physical nature of poetry, and he and combo member James Tobin talk about the experience of collaborating. Photo by Beatrice de Gea

Poetry on the page, says Robert Pinsky, is like a musical score: it’s meant to be heard.  And so the College of Arts & Sciences professor of English, former three-time U.S. poet laureate, and author of several acclaimed books of poetry, prose, and translation is bringing his verse to life in a series of soulful readings to musical accompaniment. In these spirited performances Pinsky, whose first ambition was to be a jazz saxophonist, combines his passion for jazz and his conviction that poetry is “very physical.” The result — call it jazz rap — is a merging of music and poetry into “a single manifestation of art,” he says.

The BU Jazz Combo recently performed with Pinsky at a fundraising event in New York. The awed students admitted that before the session the prospect of playing with Pinsky made them nervous; they didn’t want to overshadow the charismatic, high-profile poet and author of a widely lauded translation of Dante’s Inferno. Joined by trumpeter Andrew Goodrich, a College of Fine Arts assistant professor of music, the ensemble included James Tobin (CAS’10), on bass, Ryan Hershkowitz (CAS’11), on drums, Paul Lepro (CAS’11), on piano, and Dan Mainardi (CAS’13), on guitar. As it happened, Pinsky’s verse and the musicians’ playful exchanges eased almost instantly into a mellow conversation. “If I read with three other musicians we’re a quartet; with four other musicians we’re a quintet,” says Pinsky. The magic of these collaborations, he feels, comes largely from the equal creative status of everyone involved.

In the last few months Pinsky has performed with jazz musicians on the stages of New York’s Jazz Standard and the Regattabar in Cambridge, where pianist and bandleader Stanley Sagov played with him. Pinsky wants to dispel any stereotypical images of beatniks growling contrived verse to the riffing of an upright bass.

“This is not an exercise in nostalgia, or giggling at the ’50s,” Pinsky told the New York Times before a performance. “We hope the evening will not be about goatees and berets, but about art.”

Devin Hahn can be reached at dhahn@bu.edu. Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.


2 Comments on Speaking Jazz

  • Anonymous on 04.26.2010 at 12:04 pm

    that’s awesome. kudos to pinsky for using a student band

  • Verne on 07.25.2010 at 10:12 am

    Paul Lepro, the pianist, shines in this video. Where can I meet him!? Hope all the students at BU are like this.

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