#Womensday – LondonJazz Interview: Poetry and Jazz – Jehane Markham Trio (JMT)

Jehane Markham Trio

Catherine Ford interviewed poet Jehane Markham and musician Robin Phillips of the Jehane Markham Trio, who have been combining jazz and poetry for nearly a decade.

1) Jehane Markham gives the poet’s perspective

Catherine Ford: Who is in the Jehane Markham Trio (JMT)?

Jehane Markham: The trio consists of myself (poet and librettist), Robin Phillips (keyboards), and Jonny Gee (double bass).

CF: How did it come into being? JM:It started when I met Robin Philips in 2004. I was reading my work at the Salthouse Festival in Norfolk, with my late husband, Roger Lloyd Pack, who was reading T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland. At that time, Robin was playing with double bass player, Graeme Howell and it was suggested by the organizer that we might like to work together. I was hesitant at first but sent a few poems to Robin and really liked the way he responded to them, suggesting jazz tunes which seemed to suit. After working together for a while, I thought I would like to try to write a fresh piece especially for us to perform, so I went away and wrote The London Series, which was a mix of autobiography, quotations from favourite writers and poem/songs about different parts of London where I had lived as a young woman. We performed this, and a second piece, Vladivostok to Moscow, which was based on the 7- day Siberian Train trip, at festivals, theatres, clubs and cafés. The way we worked was this: I would read aloud the entire piece so that the musicians could get a feel of whole narrative – then we would break it up into separate sections and work on those. We did this till we had established an evocative narration linked by poems and riffs that felt right.

CF…….Is it always the same musicians? JM:In 2007 Jonny Gee took over as double bass player from Graeme Howell. Natalie Rozario has also played the ‘cello when Jonny has not been available. Each musician has contributed something unique to the pieces and has helped make them rich and dynamic.

CF: How do the language of poetry and jazz complement each other?

JM: The language of poetry and jazz can complement each other if the poetry is clear and the musicians are sensitive to the emotions within the poem. The story within each poem has to be understood and enhanced, not dominated, by the music. Jazz can swell the sense of emotion and add a sense of urgency to the work. It can add interest with sound effects (Jonny and the train whistle was particularly effective!) and deepen the different moods within a piece. It can give movement and space – it can give silence – an underestimated and intrinsic value to a spoken word piece. It can support the rhythm of the words and act as driving force. Working with Robin Phillips, Graeme Howell, Jonny Gee and Natalie Rozario I learnt a lot about how good musicians work – how quick (and talented) they are and what a short-hand of musicality they share.

My father was an actor and my mother was a writer who read stories to us children every night. Reading my poems to jazz is as close as I will get to be being a Blues singer, it satisfies the actor in me as well as the writer.

Dunn's Chemist by JMT

CF: What is your favourite piece to date?

JM: I am equally proud of both pieces but have favourite song/poems in each: Dunn’s Chemist in The London Series and Snow and Pasternak in Vlad to Moscow.

Catherine Ford: What is the next project for JMT?

JM: We are playing at The Haberdashery in Crouch End on Wednesday 2nd April (check the website for details nearer the time: http://www.the-haberdashery.com) and we are working on a new extended piece for the Autumn, possibly using the ‘cello as the third instrument.

London Series Demo by JMT

Robin gives the musician’s perspective

Catherine Ford: Robin, from your perspective as a musician; why poetry?

Robin Phillips: I first met Jehane when I was asked to perform as a jazz duo at a performance in Norfolk where both Jehane and Roger were reading. It was here she mentioned her desire to incorporate music more closely with her poetry. I enjoyed her style of reading very much and thought it would be an interesting challenge. The original trio was with a bass player I was working with in Norwich at the time called Graeme Howell and we started off by incorporating music to her existing individual poetry pieces. It was often a case of finding a standard, or part of it, that suited the mood of the piece. E.g My Funny Valentine for her poem Valentine. As the relationship developed we tried to make the music completely original, partly through desire, partly through the necessity of playing to poetry (I’ll come back to this later). Jehane then mentioned her desire to do a bigger piece, which was the London Series, this gave us the opportunity to develop leitmotifs and weave musical ideas throughout the 25 min piece. The success of this followed with her 40 min Vladivostok to Moscow piece, which incorporates as much soundscaping as it does jazz. We are now looking at another extended piece, using the cello as the third instrument.

As for why poetry, it’s not something I pro-actively looked to get involved with and like so many paths with music, I try to be open to any opportunity to develop as a musician.

CF: Why work with Jehane and how is she so extraordinary?

RP: I find it quite hard to get into poetry as written down, but I absolutely love Jehane’s reading of her own poetry. Maybe this is because I work with audio rather than written words the rest of the time. Jehane has the amazing ability to create a world through her voice and words, it’s quite hypnotic, mesmerising and certainly evokes emotion. For me, performances are almost an exercise in meditation as much as a musical performance.

CF: How do you compose and ‘communicate’ music to complement the poetry?

RP: This is the real challenge. At first I approached it far too much like a jazz musician, and there would be too many ideas happening at once. The most important thing is to help create the atmosphere that Jehane is working towards with a piece (serenity, tension etc) while leaving space for the words. I suppose to this extent it is like working with a vocalist. I suppose it could be compared to cool jazz or modal jazz, the idea of stripping away harmonic complexity to leave space for creativity and emotion. CF: What about the metre and rhythm of poetry? RP I try to think of Jehane as the rhythm section of this trio, she is responsible for the metre, tempo, the beat and we build on this.

Catherine Ford:And you have made recordings?

Robin Phillips: So many people would ask us for recordings after a performance that we went into the studio and recorded both of the longer pieces, along with a few of the shorter pieces. Two CDs are available.

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