Meehan, Griffin, Chisholm: Small Holes in the Silence (Rattle)

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Meehan, Griffin, Chisholm: Dreams, Yellow Lions (words by Alistair Campbell)
Meehan, Griffin, Chisholm: Small Holes in the Silence (Rattle)

Music and poetry have a long association, even if we might just start with Jack Kerouacreading On the Road to the accompaniment of Steve Allen's piano in the late Fifties. Then there were the Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron and others.

The raw poetry of these writers was largely inspired by jazz and, in its lyrical rhythms, rode the rolling freedom which jazz -- notably bebop -- offered. A number of rap artists have been similarly inspired.

In those instances the words owed a debt to jazz, but many other projects find pre-exisitng poems set to music.

This collection of New Zealand poems set to music -- by jazz composer/ pianist Norman Meehan, sung by Hannah Griffin and with Hayden Chisholm on saxophone -- starts from the obverse position of the tradition: the words of James K Baxter, Hone Tuwhare, Bill Manhire, Alistair Campbell, Eileen Duggan and David Mitchell came first.

So that requires a very different art and although Meehan, Manhire, Griffin and others have trod this path on previous Rattle releases, this one brings everything home much more successfully.

Manhire's Death of a Poet opens with a beautifully spare solo by Chisholm which seems to echo the sound of a Zen flute, and it sets the reflective (almost folk) mood perfectly for Griffin's clear and empathetic delivery of the lyrics which end, "the great world makes its changes and yet remains the same; and poets' verses will unwind the tangle in the brain".

Throughout Meehan's compositions and piano playing are in equal accord with the voice and lyrics, in that regard Tuwhare's Rain (from which the album takes its title) is an object lesson in how a lyrical ballad can be crafted from the spare words on a page.

Even a cursory glance at the words of Manhire's on the page in Warehouse Curtains show a song in the making: the consistently of line length, words and sounds which fold back on themselves. The clever multiple tracking of Griffin's voice and her pacing push it close to Joni Mitchell around her Hissing of Summer Lawns period.

Yellow Room (by Mitchell) nudge the comparison even further.

Griffin also brings a soulful quality when required (as on Campbell's Blue Rain).

Although those aforementioned previous albums from this source have been acclaimed they never seemed quite as successful as their champions proclaimed.

This one however -- where the layers and subtleties become clear only on repeated listenings -- really brings music and lyric together in unforced and understated harmony.

Small Holes in the Silence will be launched on Monday October 19 during Auckland Jazz Festival. Entrance to the venue is Stanbeth House, at 28 Customs St East. For more on the festival events go here.

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