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Wild Winds: Improvising Emily Dickinson

Outline OTL142 [55:46 + 61:48]




Emily & Her Atoms (6:43)

Alone & In A Circumstance (5:20)

Other Eyes (3:10)

Singing the Triangle (4:46)

Dangerous Times (3:53)

Mind Gray River (5:50)

One Note From One Bird (4:08)

Cornets of Paradise (3:20)

A Star Not Far Enough (2:17)

Hymn: You Wish You Had Eyes In Your Pages (3:05)

Wild Lines (1:31)

Say More (3:01)

Bright Wednesday (1:23)

Big Bill (4:53)

It’s Easy To Remember (2:18)


Wild Lines (2:18)

Emily & Her Atoms (7:32)

Alone & In A Circumstance (5:58)

One Note From One Bird (4:25)

Dangerous Times (4:11)

A Star Not Far Enough (3:33)

Singing the Triangle (5:37)

Mind Gray River (6:13)

Cornets of Paradise (3:16)

Other Eyes (3;35)

Say More (2:56)

Hymn: You Wish You Had Eyes In Your Pages (3:02)

Bright Wednesday (1:44)

Big Bill (5:04)

It’s Easy To Remember (2:16)


Jane Ira Bloom (soprano sax), Dawn Clement (piano)

Mark Helias (bass) Bobby Previte (drums).


Add Deborah Rush (voice)

rec. New York City, April 2017

Since the death of Steve Lacy in 2004, Jane Ira Bloom has had no serious rivals as the premier figure in jazz specializing (just about exclusively) on the soprano saxophone. She plays her chosen instrument with a lyricism quite different from the sounds of John Coltrane and Lacy (her major predecessors), and has made a superb series of recordings since the late 1970s (she was born in 1955) which contains work as distinguished as any produced in the world of jazz during the same period. She is a significant composer too (at the end of the 1980 she was the first composer to receive a commission from the NASA Arts program), having written a number of suites and sets of interconnected pieces. One such was Chasing Paint, a suite in tribute to the painter Jackson Pollock. A tribute to another American artistic pioneer has now followed.

Bloom has recorded Wild Winds – commissioned by Chamber Music America in 2015 – which carries the subtitle ‘Improvising Emily Dickinson’. The first thing that must be said is that despite that subtitle, enjoyment of this music is not dependent upon a familiarity with the work of Emily Dickinson, though I would suggest that such pleasure is enhanced by such familiarity. For those with no knowledge of, or interest in, Dickinson this remains (especially the first disc) a thoroughly absorbing and rewarding recording of sophisticated and adventurous jazz, the work of a quartet of fine musicians, between whom there is a seemingly intuitive interaction. The work of bassist Helias and drummer Previte is exemplary in its variety and attentiveness; I confess that I knew little of pianist Dawn Clement’s work before hearing this record – she is clearly a considerable musician. The first disc in this set is purely instrumental, though a number of pieces carry titles borrowed from Dickinson (from her letters as well as her poems); as suggested above however, these titles don’t in any way define or limit the impact or ‘significance’ of the music. The second disc is a little different in emphasis. On some tracks the actor Deborah Morris joins the musicians, reading passages from Dickinson. What we are offered, it should be stressed, is not ‘settings’ of Dickinson’s words (in the more purely ‘classical’ world there are many such settings, of which Aaron Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950) is perhaps the most famous). Rather Morris’ readings constitute one extra ‘voice’ in the music’s texture, affecting (and being affected) by the instrumental voices, whether in a spirit of reinforcement or comment.

So, viewed just as an ‘abstract’ jazz album Wild Winds (the music isn’t at all ‘wild’!) is outstanding. But its seriousness of purpose, its connection with Emily Dickinson, deserves to be thought about seriously.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is an extraordinary figure in the history of poetry, indeed of the arts in America. She was born in Amherst. Massachusetts – where she lived out her life, becoming a recluse who rarely stepped outside the family home. As a girl she had music lessons and was bought a piano – in the words of one scholar (Carol Damon Andrews) her “musical precocity was evident soon after [she] learned to talk”. She played and improvised at the piano. She wrote poetry abundantly, just how abundantly was hidden from her family until after she died. One biographer (Richard B. Sewell) observes of her writings that she “thought musically”. Of the more than 1,800 poems she wrote, only around a dozen were published during her lifetime. Then, and for some years after her death her texts were published in versions which adapted them to conform to the grammatical and other conventions which she, on the evidence of her manuscripts, very consciously rejected. Her poetry is essentially musical – even jazz-like – in a number of ways. In its attention to sound, in Dickinson’s idiosyncratic phrasing, ‘recording’ the ‘voice’ matters more than traditional form. Her poems are not ‘polished’ objects (which is not to say that they were tossed off carelessly, she clearly worked hard at them) in the way that most of the poetry of her century was; rather she seeks to enact (or to create the illusion of enacting) the process of thought, building up her text as a series of discrete phrases (sometimes individual words), side-stepping all the prevailing conventions of presentation and punctuation. Her handwritten texts use a variety of dashes as guides to ‘musical’ structure. In a sense any printed text of Dickinson is false to her work. She ought really to be read in facsimile – though even that would fail to do justice to the physicality of what she wrote – some poems were written on envelopes unglued and opened out.

Many of Dickinson’s poems resist analysis and certainly make ‘paraphrase’ impossible. Very little other poetry refuses so absolutely the possibility of ‘translation’ into another set of words. This refusal is akin to music’s refusal of adequate verbal translation. What should one make of, for example, the following poem (Dickinson didn’t go in for titles – this is poem 1348 in what is still the standard edition by Thomas Johnson);

Lift it – with the Feathers

Not alone we fly –

Launch it – the aquatic

Not the only sea –

Advocate the Azure

To the lower Eyes –

He has obligation

Who has Paradise –

To read this is like performing a musical score – one has to intuit a voice, trying to catch its rhythms and patterns of phrasing – to let the images evoke emotions and ideas without ever attempting to ‘resolve’ them, since the way the phrases build, set up implications and make connections, intentionally resists closure. As a way of proceeding, all of this surely has more than a little in common with the ways in which an improvised solo is built by a good jazz musician. It is a matter of process rather than completed object.

In terms both of her subject matter and her style, Dickinson, in effect, reduces the accumulated historical discourses of Christianity, metaphysics and morality to its constituent ‘atoms’ and from these atoms, builds, in a series of fragments (most of her poems are very short) her own utterly individual idiom of word and thought. As such, while it may resist translation into alternative words, it is ripe for ‘translation’ into music – which is what Bloom and her colleagues do here, not by any kind of literalist imitation, but by endeavouring to inhabit her essentially ‘musical’ processes of thought.

In an interview with Filipe Freitas (available online: ) Bloom was asked which aspects of Dickinson’s work most attracted her. She answered: “The abstract quality of her word choice, the alternation of rhythmic and legato phrasing, the way she creates imaginative metaphors by linking up words from different universes …. it all feels very musical to me and similar to improvisers’ thought processes”. This two CD set is a triumphant affirmation of the validity of Bloom’s perception.

Glyn Pursglove


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