Songsmith Collective

And to think, people toss around the word “irreverent” like it’s a bad thing.

The new album of poetry settings by Western Michigan University’s Songsmith Collective is irreverent, and it’s also wonderful. On eight diverse tracks, the group’s eleven members write and play as though they don’t know how hard setting poetry is supposed to be or how hallowed scholars consider the poems they’ve chosen. Whether setting poems by Yeats, Frost, Hughes, or WMU’s own Traci Brimhall, the Collective creates music with an ease and freshness that clearly belongs in the present moment.

From the first-bloom briskness of “A Dust of Snow” to the martial orchestrations of “Nolan” and the lyrical richness of “Wealth-Ardella,” the album blossoms with evocation that matches and surpasses the stories in the text. The images, many well worn by time and overuse, are re-energized by the modern soul of the music. This soul is found, in part, in the orchestrations, which feature intriguing touches of muted trumpet, bass clarinet, flute, and rhodes as well as meaty horn harmony backing up singers Brooke Lauritzen and Elliot Weeks, and frequently coming to the forefront for contrapuntal soli. Compelling soloists interject, tackling obscure chord progressions without a hint of fear or reticence, and with a notable respect for their function in uplifting the theme of each piece. The closing setting of Traci Brimhall’s “Imagine the Fire” is perhaps the farthest ranging piece of the album, starting with an aggressive swing rhythm, and climaxing with a rock-star-energy-level repetition of Brimhall’s memorable line, “Imagine a piano lit on fire and pushed off a roof.” The track, and the album, careen to an end with the sounds of the lowest keys of the piano sliding hopelessly into the abyss. The track is wild, unabashed, youthful, and – yes – irreverent. And – yes – it really works.

Dr. Andrew Rathbun

Sometimes I am asked if I think jazz is dead. I quickly say no. Jazz is alive and well in places like WMU where students from the Advanced Jazz Ensemble made a recording of their compositions this spring. Members generated material – mostly settings of the poetry by Robert Frost, Langston Hughs, Yeats and Traci Brimhall.

The use of improvisation and counterpoint as dialogue with the text and the human voice prove very effective, and the ensemble listens – they play and sing with dynamics and awareness. The work done by these young musicians reflect their curiosity, which jazz is about – the unanswered question, the constant searching.

Throughout the recording you hear the intention of the ensemble – conscious of its mission of creativity and expression. The poetry is beautiful and serves to elicit the emotion echoed in the band.

Luciana Souza, Grammy awarded Brazilian jazz singer and composer