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Thirteen Kinds of Desire by Pamela Knowles/Yusef Komunyakaa

Beginning with one long exhaled breath, Knowles' adaptation of the words of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa sets a spacious tone. Most "jazz singers" merely sing standards with occasional phrase slipping and sliding but rarely attempting a full on exploration of the human voice as jazz instrument. Knowles attempts nothing less here and joins the company of true jazz singers in the process - instrumentalists like the great Betty Carter and Polish singer Urszula Dudziak. As example:

Dryads and Satyrs
dance with merry pranksters,
nomads and martyrs
as if we were back in Woodstock
watching some Isadora
searching for sons of aurora.

By looking at that first piece, "Satyrs and Dryads", one gets the sense of the poet's work - its stretch between the Beat and the classical world of words - and what Knowles is up against. She tackles this by elongating alternate phrases and rushing others to accommodate the rhythm, stretching the first, third and fifth lines to match the length of the lines that follow. Only a jazz singer could accommodate such liquid swoops and liberties in diction (at one point she bleats "Ber-er-er-er-kley Hills" like Miles sputtering "Funny Valentine").

I hear from many jazz listeners that the problem with such singing for them is that its strength - its novel unorthodoxy - ends up consuming its own tale. While I can understand the point of view, Knowles shouldn't have to - she's doing her thing and doing it well. When the musicians do their part as well and the disc achieves a textured pulse - as on the hilarious radio ready "Shot Down", the beautiful ballad "Mirage" or the spacious "Incantation" - Thirteen Kinds jars the usual jazz vocal patterns. If you like your eclecticism timid and in small doses, then don't go here. But if you're sick of the same old song, climb aboard and set sail.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Pamela Knowles/Yusef Komunyakaa
  • CD Title: Thirteen Kinds of Desire
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2000
  • Record Label: Cornucopia
  • Musicians: Knowles (vocals); Matt McMahon, Alister Spence, Jann Rutherford (piano); Adam Armstrong (bass); Simon Barker (drums); Fabian Hevla (percussion); Warwick Alder (trumpet); James Greening (tuba, trombone
  • Rating: Five Stars
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