Poet finds notes, musician words 

Herzig and Krapf's 'Imagine'

Poet Norbert Krapf and pianist Monika Herzig's new full-length spoken word/jazz collaboration, Imagine: Indiana in Music and Words, is aptly titled. Krapf and Herzig creatively re-map the state to better represent their own emotional landmarks, taking the listener on an imagined tour of Indiana that can't be found in any guidebook.

Stops on the Imagine journey include Indiana Avenue in its heyday, with tribute to the Hampton Sisters and other Indiana jazz greats ("What Have You Gone and Done?" and "On the Road with the Hampton Sisters"); an unassuming apartment in Massachusetts Avenue's Barton House belonging to poet Etheridge Knight ("Etheridge Knight's Blues," see sidebar for an excerpt); the forests and fields near Jasper, Ind., where, as a young man, Krapf meditated on his future during a troubled period in his life ("Deaton's Woods"); and a dormitory at St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer, Ind., where one chilly night, a hate crime followed a lost athletic contest ("Fire and Ice").

Imagine, released in December 2007 on Bloomington's Acme Records, collects 15 pieces that Herzig and Krapf have developed through performances given over the last two years. Krapf wrote some poems specifically for the project, and drew on his large archive of published materials for other pieces; similarly, Herzig composed original music for some of her backing tracks, while other arrangements are based on popular song. Only some of the pieces that Krapf and Herzig perform live are included, and there's a chance of hearing plenty more at a live show, including a recently-penned tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. The two are performing frequently throughout 2008 (see the sidebar for album and performance details).

On Imagine

Krapf and Herzig's sound owes something to the best of the '50s and '60s-era collaborations between poets and jazz musicians, recalling, for instance, Hammond, Ind.-raised storyteller Jean Shepherd's work with Charles Mingus on the 1957 track "The Clown," or the inconsistent but always inspired musical experiments conducted by Allen Ginsburg that are collected on the box Holy Soul Jelly Roll. But there's a whole lot of other material from that period that hasn't remained fresh, so it's remarkable that Imagine avoids the pitfalls of unfocused improvisation and verbose, stream-of-consciousness poetry that plague those forgotten records.

Krapf's work would have been largely out of place in a beat coffee bar: He favors simplicity of expression over ornateness of style, often forsaking rhyme altogether (although Herzig has encouraged him to work with rhyme more frequently in the course of their collaboration). His poetry burrows in your head, rewarding with a second or third listen or reading.

Repeating and carefully placing emphasis on one key phrase or another, Krapf makes it possible for a seemingly simple section to take on added significance or several meanings in the reader's mind: Consider the piece "When the Call Came," which closes with the phrase, "Yes, we accept her, yes," said in reply to the offer of an adopted child to Krapf's family. This affirmation, while specific and grounded in the context of the poem, can start to sound like something more general when said a time or two, like an eternal yes or a more universally affirmative approach to the world, like Mary Bloom chanting, "Yes I said yes I will Yes," at the close of Ulysses.

Herzig is also subtle and unassuming in her approach to the music she plays and arranges for Imagine: She doesn't take any time for solos, depriving herself and her fellow musicians of an opportunity to show off their chops. Herzig's music often enhances Krapf's words, and never overwhelms them.

When Herzig and Krapf really cook, they're working together. On "Someone Who Misses New Orleans," the two performers build in intensity throughout the piece, matching dynamics purposefully and hitting just the right spots with the help of a second-line horn section. A legato violin solo helps the track "One Long Love Song" achieve an emotional intensity that would have been unlikely with just words or music alone.

Monika, Monika

The story of how Krapf and Herzig came to work together is the subject of the first piece on the album: "Monika, Monika / What have you gone and done?" asks poet Krapf of pianist Herzig in the opening lines. What she did was teach Krapf and other students in her IUPUI jazz history class about the legacy of Hoosier jazz, exposing their neophyte ears to a variety of jazz styles and means of expression. Herzig, who earned her doctorate in music education and jazz studies at Indiana University, is a veteran jazzhand in Indianapolis and elsewhere, having performed as a professional jazz pianist for 15 years. Krapf, emeritus professor of English and poet laureate at Long Island University, has taught a few classes himself, but it was as a student that he delivered the poem "What Have You Gone and Done?" at the final class meeting.

It was when the poet and composer found that they had written a work on the same subject - the death of a child - that they saw that they have something more in common than a healthy interest in jazz history. They made that connection indirectly, a reader communing and identifying with a writer.

One night at The Chatterbox, where each class ended, Krapf passed Herzig a postcard upon which was printed his poem "Sisters," written about a sister of his that was stillborn. (See sidebar for the complete text of the poem.) Herzig had lost a child herself, and had written about the experience in "The Third Passenger (Song for a Lost Child)." Things took off from there: Herzig and Krapf began to work up some songs while he was still enrolled in the class, and by the end of the course, they performed a series of pieces to the class and gathered friends.

Words and music, together again

Looking back, Krapf and Herzig had been waiting for a collaborator like one another to come along before they met through Herzig's class. Krapf had been batting around the idea of setting his poetry to music for a while: He's collaborated before with artists on illustrated books of his poetry, and is always open to working with others to expand the scope of his own work.

"I wanted to reunite poetry and music in a way that gets back to how poetry got started," Krapf related. "Then Monika admitted to me later on that people are always asking her, 'Don't you sing, don't you sing songs.' She would say to them, 'No, I'm a composer.' So there's a sense in which it fulfilled a need that both of us had."

Etheridge Knight's Blues

When I walk past the Barton Towers
at 555 Mass. Avenue where you lived
the last years of your life and passed
into spirit when your cells kept exploding,
I think of you on the thirteenth floor looking out
at the exotic Murat Temple where I heard
B.B. King's guitar hold its drawn-out breath
for such a gut-bucket street singer as you...

©2008 Indiana University Press


My first sister
was born without
ever drawing a
breath. I heard
my mother cry
and my grandmother
scold her upstairs.

When my second sister
began to cry,
my mother breathed
a lot easier. My
grandmother smiled.
The dolls we kept
clapped their hands.

©1993 Time Being Books

Imagine: Indiana in Music and Words is available at Indianapolis and Bloomington stores and online at www.cdbaby.com. Full audio files for the first two tracks and further information can be found at www.acmerecords.com/pp1.php. More information about Norbert Krapf can be found at www.krapfpoetry.com and about Monika Herzig at www.acmerecords.com.

Upcoming performances:

Friday, Feb. 8: Jazz & Poetry (celebrating Black History Month), Boulevard Place Café, 7-9 p.m.

Sunday, Feb. 24: A Call to Peace with Carolyn Dutton, violin; Scott Russell Sanders, reader; and Tom Roznowski; Waldron Arts Center Auditorium, Bloomington, 3 p.m.

Monday, April 7: Jazz & Poetry with Jack Gilfoy, IUPUI IT Building Auditorium, 7 p.m.

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