I first met poet and playwright Jehane Markham in (year??) when, whilst living in Norwich, I was asked to perform improvised jazz as part of a duo to accompany her (now late-) husband Roger Lloyd-Pack’s presentation of Keat’s The Wasteland, at a poetry festival in North Norfolk.
Always open to new experiences we went with open minds and of course glad to make the acquaintance of an actor we had known from the screen for years. We met Jehane at the event and following it we were asked if we would be interested to compose some music to accompany Jehane’s original work. Again, we entered into it with open minds, not really expecting too much to happen.
However, from our first meeting it was clear that Jehane not only had something to offer as a wordsmith, but that she also understood how music could be used to enhance her own work. Not just that, she was intensely focused on being a part of the group and how she could fit with us, not simply asking us to layer under her work.
Two things quickly became apparent to me about working with this poet. First, that it is so easy to overplay, and I can’t emphasize this enough. As a musician, especially a jazzer, you are constantly looking for ideas to add to the moment and the composition. But Jehane’s words are all so carefully chosen and relevant to the mood and context of her story, that almost any elaboration on the musical theme quickly gets in the way. As we settled into the idea of ‘less is more’, we started to understand that the music had to be an almost hypnotic wallpaper for Jehane to hang her art on, and once you get into this mindset and the rhythm of the words being delivered, it’s an almost meditative experience.
Less is more, less, less, I constantly berated myself for a flourish that took focus from the words being delivered.
Secondly, I started to understand that the poet’s role in an ensemble such as this, is as the rhythm maker, or a kind of lyrical drummer if you will. The beat is set by the meter and the delivery. This also meant that we could listen to the piece up front a few times and almost immediately have an idea to try, like you would with a drummer showing you an idea for a beat for a new tune.
Also, there’s a fragility to Jehane’s delivery, and by this I don’t mean there is any weakness, but an edge where she relives the emotions felt at the point of her own composing, every time she performs the piece. This adds to the importance of the music not interrupting these intense moments, whether retelling an old-time drug dealer walking the streets of London, the power of first love and touch, or a train journey across Russia.
At the outset we would be very literal with our consideration of the music to add. A poem about love might get a reworking of My Funny Valentine for instance. But after a while working together it became a much more immersive experience, and we realized very quickly there was no point trying to preconceive ideas, they were always too complex, too much.
As we let go of the inner-musician telling us to do more, try more, and Jehane’s confidence grew in pushing and pulling with us, and working with us as the rhythm-maker of the group, the pieces grew in length and power and quality, and I’m immensely proud of the work we have recorded together.
The third member of the group has changed over time, and shifted from upright bass to cello to add a more melodic approach to the accompaniment, becoming more of a soundscape than a ‘jazz duo + poet’.
Her work never fails to take me into a new headspace and paint a new picture of her lived-experience, and I know it does the same to her audiences, whether reading or listening to her creations, yet I suppose I am fortunate to be a part of the realization of the work each time we perform it.
Robin Phillips, July 2022
Robin Phillips is a jazz pianist and singer, presenter, producer, and teacher. Having lived in London, Norwich and Vancouver, Canada, he now lives near Cambridge in England. In 2022 he released the road trip documentary film ‘Back To The Source’ which followed his journey of discovery back to the roots of blues and jazz, on a Harley Davidson motorcyle, from Chicago to New Orleans. He also presents ‘The Jazz Show With Robin Phillips’ weekly on www.DeluxRadio.co.uk. Find out more at www.repmusic.co.uk.