February 15–22, 2001
critic pick | spoken word
Jayne Cortez & The Firespitters
All of which makes sense, given the poet’s singular history. Born in Arizona and raised in California, Cortez graduated from an arts high school, where she forged an identity as a writer and cellist. In 1954, at the age of 18, she married the iconoclastic saxophonist Ornette Coleman; two years later, they had a child. During the ’60s, Cortez struck out on her own — working for civil rights in Mississippi, organizing writing workshops in Watts, touring both Europe and Africa and finally emigrating to New York. She published her first book of poems in 1969. Cortez was for some time deeply invested in the ideology of the Black Arts Movement, and her work still conveys both political urgency and poetical rage. It also frequently address issues of feminism — or, perhaps more accurately, the complex matrices of womanhood. "Sacred Trees," from her most recent book Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere (Serpent’s Tail/High Risk), accomplishes this task with a kind of bittersweet, defiant grace.
On the album Taking the Blues Back Home (Harmolodic/Verve), Cortez reads poems backed by the Firespitters, an ensemble of adventuresome jazz musicians that includes guitarist Bern Nix, bassist Al MacDowell and drummer Denardo Coleman — all former members of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time. (Denardo also happens to be her son.) The resulting performances vary both in texture and tone. On "Global Inequalities," a litany which syntactically evokes Gil Scott-Heron, the Firespitters’ blues shuffle simply underscores Cortez’s cynicism. By contrast, the presence of African vocals, koras and percussion on "I Have Been Searching" somehow humanizes the elegiac words, imbuing them with life. Cortez has characterized the relationship between her and the band as a "call and response," and this is almost right. It’s not the content but the form of these poems (and the tempo, and the tone) that evolves in dialogue with the music.
Sat., Feb. 17, 8 p.m., Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St., 215-925-9914, www.paintedbride.org, $15.