Saxophonist-composer Benjamin Boone’s 2018/2019 Origin Records “Poetry of Jazz” releases, collaborations with the late U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize recipient Philip Levine, were recognized as milestone poetry/music projects. Voted the #3 “Best Album of 2018” in DownBeat Magazine’s 83rd annual Readers Poll (just behind Chick Corea and Wynton Marsalis), praised in leading musical and literary publications, and featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” The Poetry of Jazz established Boone as one of the most compelling voices among contemporary artists exploring the intersections between poetry and music.
He builds upon this foundation on his 2020 Origin Records album, The Poets Are Gathering, encompasses nearly a dozen writers exploring themes that thrum with the urgency of a protest march. The poetry addresses ripped-from- the-front-page topics such as police murder, racism, immigration, poverty, inequity, and mass shootings. As Gene Seymour writes in his extensive liner notes, “There are incantations and supplications to be found here. Also: elegies and headlines, howls and mantras, reveries and outbursts. They instruct and affirm.”
Poets include Tyehimba Jess (Pulitzer Prize), Patricia Smith (LA Times Book Award/National Slam Poetry Champion), Juan Felipe Herrera (U.S. Poet Laureate), and Edward Hirsch (MacArthur)—intertwining their work with that of 20 musicians, including pianist Kenny Werner, guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Corcoran Holt, and drummer Ari Hoenig.
Panoramic in scope and kaleidoscopic in vision, The Poets Are Gathering bursts with vivid imagery, exuberant emotions, exacting diagnoses, sinuous melodies, and thoughtful interplay. The album’s diverse voices offer perspectives on the world that is the United States in 2020. The social, cultural, political, and emotional turmoil of the moment is a recurring theme. In “Against Silence,” Tyehimba Jess offers a panorama of American violence and its toll, speaking against indiscriminate and unjust murder, both by police officers and drones, while Patricia Smith’s “That’s My Son There” condenses that panorama, providing a raw, intimate examination of the horrific and needless pain caused by these murders. Haitian American poet Patrick Sylvain twice meditates on immigration, portraying both the fraught journey and arrival (“Marooning”) and what it leaves behind (“Ports of Sorrow”). However, there is also room for less overtly political expression, whether in T.R. Hummer’s “The Sun One (Homage to Sun Ra),” Edward Hirsch’s nostalgic reflection “Branch Library,” or Marisol Baca’s cosmic abstraction “Spiral.”
The album’s far-flung vision isn’t surprising considering that the recording process was interrupted by Boone’s year- long music-rich Fulbright Fellowship in Ghana (an experience he documented with the Ghana Jazz Collective on their 2020 album Joy). The culture shock he experienced upon his return to Fresno was magnified by the unmistakable political and societal tensions he saw in the country, and he made sure the album reflected that reality. “I am humbled and honored to be able to collaborate with such marvelous poets, who so eloquently speak the truth about this country and of existence,” says Boone. “I am touched by their profound messages.”