Musex Records ($25)
by Kirpal Gordon
Although Venerable Madtown Hall is postbeat poet/scholar/musician Jim Cohn’s eighth CD of spoken word and music, it’s his first to come with a DVD, and he couldn’t have chosen a better date. Filmed in black and white by Katrina Miller and William Garrison, The Making of Venerable Madtown Hall is an ars poetica, a delight for eye and ear, and highly useful for fans, poets, and musicians making sense of this tradition.
In writ-oral-aural fashion, one can read the poem (at https://www.poetspath.com/homepage/listeningroom.html) before listening to it on the CD or watching Cohn speak the poem on the DVD with the band. All three are quite different experiences. Observing Cohn phrase his poetic line is a study in Whitman-Kerouac-Ginsberg cadences and Dylan-Waits-Neil Young double entendres. He’s blessed with an impeccable sense of time, his syllables are elastic and his honey-gravel-bourbon-inflected voice whispers, laments, and celebrates his lyrics—but it is the deep-pocket rapport he builds with Bob Schlesinger on keyboards and Chris Engleman on bass that turns the session into a seminar on the art of collaboration. Cohn unites word to note and “leaves room,” as the nuns told us when we danced too close to our partners in high school, “for the Holy Ghost.” There’s plenty of space for everything in this bardo blues project, and because nothing is rushed, all is revealed in Cohn’s smoky, spooky, indeterminate delivery.
Cohn’s willing not to know what he’s after until it happens. Like Miles Davis in the studio, he keeps instructions to a cryptic minimum, and the result is Miles-like: the musicians discover new ways to cohere the score. In the opener, “Extraterrestial Girl,” for example, Cohn shares a few laughs on the title, asks for “trance music, kind of Philip Glass,” listens with rapt attention, and then lays down lyric as if he’d been rehearsing it to this melody all his life, the final chorus—“Things that cannot possibly exist are utterly real. / You’ll see me again and never know it”—hanging in a stunning “Crystal Silence”-type mood.
The magic’s in the interaction, and watching Schlesinger search out a blues “more gnarly, dirty and grunge” on “Medicine Verbs,” one can see how the trio invents. Engleman’s electric bass line opens tasty and phat, the organ wails a gospel prayer and Cohn sings-speaks-haunts these lines as if across a thousand galaxies: “You and I speak to one another in medicine verbs. / These are the words we live by after we die and there are no words.”
The music does more than give form or accompaniment to the words. It totally changes the context, enlarging the poem’s possibilities, drawing out its enigmatic elements, suggesting alternate meanings. “When Hard Times Take Everything,” the final track, a Schlesinger ballad of exquisite beauty, turns Cohn’s last lines—“Many life forms have evolved beyond us. / Although their transmissions are murmurs, / They grow within our children and transform who we become”—into a joyous hope, the embodiment of Venerable Madtown Hall’s theme.