The Music Of ‘Spoken Word’


The stage at the Cornelia Street Café isn’t spacious. With a baby grand piano in place it is downright cramped. So it’s not surprising that poet Jake Marmer is bouncing in place as he chants, exhorts and declaims his verse while Greg Wall, Frank London and Uri Sharlin lay down a deep-pile sonic carpet to cushion his words. “It’s been a long way to get here,” Marmer says at the outset of the performance, “and I’m grateful to be in the moment.”

Being in the moment is not usually a major concern for a poet, but this particular moment is the launching of Marmer’s first CD, “Hermeneutic Stomp,” and when you are partnered by three excellent improvisers, the moment counts more than a permanent text.

Marmer is deeply committed to the idea of poetry as an outgrowth of song, so the tension between the written and the improvised is central to his jazz-and-poetry pieces. At 34 he is still a boyish presence, a slight figure in flat cap and black-rimmed glasses, looking like a throwback not to the ’50s jazz-and-poetry heyday but farther into the past, to the ’30s or even the Soviet ’20s. He is obviously constrained by the crowded bandstand, swaying at the knees like a kid working a hula-hoop, punning outrageously, invoking Talmud scholars both real and imagined. At his side Wall on tenor sax, Sharlin on piano and London on trumpet are creating a sort of soulful narrative line in counterpoint to Marmer’s language-drunk abstractions.

Marmer riffs on bits of Jewish history, as in “Painters Nigun,” in which he invokes “a song of people painting walls, walls of a shul that doesn’t exist … cubist visions across centuries, living sounds, livid sounds.” In “Mishnah of Silence,” he puns, “Said Rav Yehuda: even silence has its laws, even silence./Even silence: smooth, perfectly pressed dry-cleaned trouser silence./But the odd-looking, wrinkled silence chewed up into a broken cosmic accordion is lawless, different every time.”

Of course, the group’s performance is “different every time,” too.

“They’re improvising, and they have the green light to do so,” Marmer explains after the set is finished. “They drive me in performance. I’m looking for the doors to open and something new to come out.”

Wall has done spoken word with music before, notably on his excellent CD of the poetry of Rabbi Avraham Kook.

“Spoken word has an immediacy to it that is very liberating for instrumentalists; the speaker can choose to reinforce or float over any rhythms suggested by the music, and the musicians can respond to the complex rhythms of speech patterns,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Miles Davis used to mention he tried to articulate speech patterns on his trumpet, as a way to break away from typical and all too familiar rhythms. Non-musicians sometimes have a refreshing way of hearing the music, and that means we can’t take their responses for granted. In addition, the text itself adds a whole other layer to the compositional process, whether pre-composed, or improvised.”

“The spoken voice is a sonic element,” London writes in a subsequent e-mail. “But [we’re] often not dealing with melody, or harmony, or even ‘rhythm’ in the most conventional sense. We have to deal with not only the sound, but also the meaning of the words. So our reactions and interactions are based on more than just musical elements.”

The set at Cornelia Street and the new CD are the product of a process that combines the composed with the improvised. When asked about the felt but unseen presence of Allen Ginsberg in some of the night’s poetry, Marmer points to the spontaneity of his own current work as a point of departure.

“I feel Ginsberg’s presence, his rabbinic cloak,” he says with a smile. “But I don’t think he improvised very much and that’s something I’m doing differently. I think I owe as much to Talking Heads and punk and the punk poetry movement as to the Beats.”

It might be counterintuitive to suggest it, but Marmer has a hidden advantage: he is not a native speaker of English (although you wouldn’t know it listening to him.) For him, English is a late addition, a veneer over the Russian he grew up with. He uses English exceptionally well, but at a distance.

“It’s not in my kishkes. So I can play with syntax structures that are broken, that raw feeling of a person just talking.”

His poetic language is plastic, malleable, fungible. If he resembles any other writer it is probably the great Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, an influence he happily acknowledges. “He is huge for me.”

In conversation, as in the introduction to the performance, Marmer keeps using the phrase “in the moment.” When asked what that notion means to him, he wrinkles his brow.

“Most of my life I’m racing after certain things,” he says. “I’m 34, I should have my Ph.D. already. Instead I’m doing this. And I’m grateful and thankful it happened this way.”

“Hermeneutic Stomp,” Jake Marmer’s CD, is the first release from Blue Thread Music, a new label specializing in Jewish music, affiliated with the magazine Jewish Currents. Marmer’s book “Jazz Talmud” is published by Sheep Meadow Press.