Petit Standard

Bruno Besana

"Tìtyre, tù patulaè recubàns sub tègmine fàgi // sìlvestrèm tenuì Musàm meditàris avèna", we had to read out loud in school, following weird accents which, instead of matching natural language, would strike like blows of a hammer the regular rhythm of which is at the same time being affected by mysterious anomalies. By those exercises of sterile precision I soon learned that poetry unlocks its sense not when you try to follow the 'content' of the text, but when you stay at the closest to the letter, to the pure materiality of the sequence of its signs: it is by mechanically reciting the poem, by following the sequence of consonants and vowels, that one discovers how the timbre of letters commands the rhythm of words, and how the rhythm of words commands the sense of the text. Vesna Pisarović approaches Standards, i.e. the informal 'reference book' of jazz, with an even more precise attention to its material composition – like a medieval scholiast who, by analysing a text word by word, letter by letter, gets straight to the bone of it, knowing that the 'spirit' is not opposed to the letter, but held in it. It's clear throughout the record how patiently she dwells into the study of this double canon, into this bible in mirror made of syllables and notes. As the meaning of a poem is not unfolded by reducing it to prose, to what the text directly or implicitly 'says', but can be seized, to the contrary, by getting to the pure materiality of letters and syllables, so the musical swing that these songs conceal is unfolded by, in fact, avoiding to take it on at face. Take for instance Jitterbug Waltz, a track all waltz, groove and swing: going against the grain of what would seem an obvious choice, the voice, doubled by bass and saxophone, 'spells out' the descending line of the opening part of the melody by subtracting all legato inflections, affectations and swung notes, and hence creating a tension from which the complex interpretative logic of the rest of the track unfolds. This choice seems to command also the interpretation of Ladies in Mercedes: the quartet unlocks the secret of the structure of Steve Swallow's writing (with a reminiscence of Carla Bley's interpretations) by bringing back this apparently light, bubbly track to what it really is: an infinite circle, a perpetual canon.

This logic of reading commands also the relation between the different instruments: although allowing room for some remarkable solos, the four players don't indulge so much in individual expressivity, nor on the contrary do they choose to have as their central focus an interplay and a mutual listening. They rather behave independently, starting from a common will to read the text, letter by letter, note by note, exploring how the succession of sounds commands the unfolding of rhythm and how melody and text proceed from this very same logic. Think of the opening of The Man I Love, where John Betsch's drums, instead of providing a brush stroke to support the melody, seem to differently punctuate the text to the way in which the voice, the bass and the bass clarinet unfold their contrasting readings (note Gebhard Ullmann's full and yet precise voice on bass clarinet).

I would name Vesna's reading strategy here a 'timbric reading', because if timbre names the sound quality of a single note, etymologically it refers both to the sound of a percussion and to the piece of wood imprinting a letter on paper. She goes back to the text, to the very sound of the stamp producing one single letter on paper, a letter which is also a note: from the 'timbric' property of each consonant, of each vowel and of each note of the 'book' of Standards she patiently reconstructs the logic that connects each element, generating the rhythm, the expressivity, the melodic structure, the sense of composition. This reading strategy also seems to command the choice of the songs she picked in the 'repertoire' of Standards: Steve Lacy, Charles Mingus and above all Ornette Coleman have in fact all, in one way or another, explored compositional strategies that, expanding the concept of melody, deploy very consistent structures that almost naturally call the performer to place great attention to timbric choices. Vesna's voice has also evolved, throughout the years, in line with this radical approach: to my initial astonishment I found here and there in the record echoes of Spirituals, which became clear to me by listening to her rendition of Lonely Woman. Following Joe Fonda's literal and yet emotional exposition of the theme (or structure, it is in fact the same thing), Vesna's voice spells out her reading line with such depth and clarity that not only recalls the experimental paths of her two previous records, but also the dry and essential strength of Odetta's Spirituals (and in the Spirituals' tradition it is indeed very clear how the spirit is in the letter, and how expression and emotion come from a precise reading of the text – in this case, the Bible).

If I had to choose a moment that would epitomize the whole record, it would be a very precise point: the almost spoken second reiteration of the word "gardenias" in A Flower is a Lovesome Thing. One can feel in this precisely spelled word, at once sung and recited, how a letter becomes a sound, how a word becomes a sequence of sounds, how a sequence of sounds becomes a rhythm finally developing into the melody and the structure of a song. It's a rare and lovesome thing, to be able to show the point of emotion in the precision of the study, the spirit in the letter, the excitement of experimentation in the dryness of research. It's my belief that Mal Waldron, the emotional master of obstinacy in research, happily and benevolently looks over.