SAN RAFAEL, Calif. - “I’m of the generation when Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet were the epitome of cool,’’ says Robert Pinsky, 71, discussing the roots of his earliest creative ambitions. Long before he thought of putting verse to paper, the future US poet laureate distinguished himself among his peers with his enthusiasm for the tenor saxophone.
He can’t hide a hint of pride recalling that his New Jersey classmates at Long Branch High School voted him the most musical (“You can believe me I wasn’t voted most likely to succeed,’’ he says).
Pinsky premieres his latest musical project tonight at Regattabar, celebrating the CD release of his “POEMJAZZ’’ collaboration with pianist Laurence Hobgood, best known for the role he’s played in the rise of Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist Kurt Elling.
Relaxing on the sun-splashed garden patio of his bed-and-breakfast on an unseasonably warm winter afternoon in Marin County, Pinsky cuts a gentle and avuncular figure. Despite his craggily handsome features and quick eyes, he looks more like a reliable sideman than an attention-grabbing bandleader.
It was only when he came to terms with the limits of his musical abilities that he slowly turned his attention to literary pursuits. But even then, Pinsky carried with him hard-won wisdom from the bandstand.
“It was becoming clear that I was not going to be the next Sonny Rollins, so my daydreams of becoming a great jazz musician turned into daydreams of becoming a great poet,’’ Pinsky says. “But the pleasure and joy of making music with other people had been very important to me, civilized me and kept me together during the years when I wasn’t doing well in school.’’
He traces his return to jazz performance to a January 2008 event at the Jazz Standard that paired him and fellow US poet laureate Charles Simic with vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and drummer Andrew Cyrille. The experience was so gratifying that he started forging ties with musicians around the region, conducting recitations with an expanding circle of players.
Somewhat haunted by the specter of Beat affectations, the marriage of jazz and poetry can tip easily into unintentional parody (beware the dreaded bongos). For Pinsky, the point isn’t to turn recitation into a dramatic enactment; it’s to deliver his verse with musical phrasing as he interacts with his accompanists.
“It’s closer to rap because you’re using the voice as an instrument,’’ Pinsky says. “It’s not rap, but it’s more like that than a Beat performance. With an attentive and inventive piano player you don’t have to push the voice. It’s nice to be able to control the voice in a speech way that’s like a melody.’’
The collaboration with Hobgood came about after Elling set Pinsky’s poem “The City Dark’’ to Wayne Shorter’s classic tune “Speak No Evil.’’ When Pinsky caught Elling’s performance at Scullers last February, Richard Connolly introduced the poet to Hobgood, thinking they were ideally suited for each other.
Encouraged when they hit it off hanging out after the show, Connolly ended up producing “POEMJAZZ’’ on his Circumstantial label.
While Hobgood has recorded several critically praised albums as a leader, he’s inextricably linked to Elling, who has carved out a singular niche as the voice of literary jazz, whether singing Fred Hersch’s settings for Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,’’ playing the role of Doc in Dave Brubeck’s jazz opera based on Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row,’’ or delivering his own poetry-laced arrangements.
“Laurence is an incredibly sensitive piano player who can come forward and play 32 concise bars or stretch out for as many choruses as you want,’’ Pinsky says. “He’s distinctive, entirely himself, without being aggressive.’’
It’s no coincidence that Hobgood makes such an effective foil. His father was a professor of American theater at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and he “grew up watching a master rehearser who knew how to bring the story out,’’ Hobgood says.
Hobgood prepared for the “POEMJAZZ’’ session by immersing himself in Pinsky’s poetry, but he didn’t know ahead of time what they would be recording. Every track was the result of their interactions live in the studio.
“That’s where it gets so cool, the way he was reading each poem was being affected very deeply by what I was playing,’’ Hobgood says. “My approach is very thematic, playing more inside than outside. People often think of Cecil Taylor or Muhal Richard Abrams, which is music that I love. But for this I’m drawing more from the Keith Jarrett school, where part of the improviser’s art is to summon themes and melodies.’’
Not that Pinsky needs kid-glove treatment. He can thrive in more rambunctious settings, too. Recalling a compliment dropped on him after a performance with great Los Angeles trumpeter Bobby Bradford, an early collaborator with Ornette Coleman, he practically beams.
“Bobby said, ‘You know, you stand up there and you’re just a guy in Dockers, and you open your mouth and you’re a saxophonist.’ ’’