RipRap, Snowpoet, & Fay Roberts' Jazz Poetry Slam at CamJazzFest

Image credit: Trevor Lee

As Cambridge’s twelve-day-long International Jazz Festival comes to a close, I’m a privileged invitee to three very different events taking place on its penultimate day. After a thoroughly indulgent afternoon spent listening to the music of RipRap, Snowpoet and the performers at Fay Roberts’ Jazz Poetry Slam, I’m struck not only by the calibre of the performances I’m lucky enough to be audience to, but to the strange and wonderful innovation which they all bring to the common ground of the jazz genre which they share.

My afternoon begins in the cosy location of the Unitarian Church, in which RipRap are due to perform with jazzpoet Jazzman John Clarke and contemporary dancer and choreographer Laura Brera. Frontman and saxophonist Kevin Flanagan begins by welcoming the audience, and explaining the “ten-part suite” which is to come: what turns out to be a near-hour-long jazz set, anchored around several of Clarke’s beat poems from his recent volume Ghost On The Road, and interspersed with interpretative dance interludes from Brera.

The experience – for this is what it feels more like, rather than a gig – is, in a word, astonishing.  An initially confusing atonal saxophone solo and discordant piano percussion accompanies Brera’s spinning and jolting introductory dance; it suggests a kind of uncomfortable struggle, yet is as arresting and intriguing a performance as the set as a whole. In what follows, the quartet of musicians achieves a series of seamless transitions between languid rhythms, puzzlingly unconventional percussions, and fervent crescendos – all as Clarke stands at the pulpit behind them, evangelising to the audience through his impassioned poetry about “jazz the way it has to be.”

At times, his sporadic, yet ever-zealous performance is counteracted by the entrancing smoothness of the musicians’ performance; at others, they synthesise with the mood of his verse, steadily increasing the rhythm and texture of their performance to reach rich and exhilarating climaxes. Whether Clarke is paying homage to the “high priests and priestesses of jazz” or proclaiming that “to be or not to bop, that iiiiis the question!”, RipRap's performance with him is at once hyptonising and invigorating. I spot more than one listener sat simply with closed eyes, in calm, entranced rapture; as if, to quote Clarke once again, lulled into consent to “let jazz take you all the places you want to go…”

Next up is Snowpoet: a five-piece band fronted by award-winning vocalist Lauren Kinsella, fresh from this year’s BBC Proms Extra. Their set begins with a gentle yet heavily reverbed bass introduction, over which Lauren’s vocals pierce with ethereal clarity – I’m a little disappointed to hear these periodically disappear over the dense, rich instrumentation that follows, but pleasantly surprised when she resurfaces at the end in the form of spoken word. “I think I appeared the same as ever… I like to use it to work and…to see things, to think. I always knew that there’d be something wonderful for me to look at.” In this and following track ‘In A Quiet Space’, Kinsella’s gossamer vocals tread an almost impossibly thin line between trancelike speech and what seems best described as sung poetry.

I’m not surprised to later learn that, amongst Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits and Ólöf Arnalds, the group cites Bjork as an influence: Kinsella’s voice leaps, skips and pirouettes with all the grace of a ballerina through each of the songs performed, when it can be discerned. Incredibly, several of their songs turn out to be based on poems by e.e. cummings and Philip Larkin, set to music – yet the band’s own lyrics are as poetic as those they lift from these writers. Perhaps it’s their lack of discernible refrains in the form of the traditional pop song structure, but their symbolically weighted lyrics consistently demand as much attention when sung as when spoken. Although Snowpoet’s material fuses such a range of genres as electronica, folk, psychedelica, and, of course, jazz, their performance is incredibly refined and polished, and invites each audience member into the reverie shared between each of the band members. With a better balanced mix, as on their recordings, I would have enjoyed their bewitchingly innovative set even more.

To finish off the evening, I head over to The Burleigh Arms to catch Fay Roberts’ Jazz Poetry Slam. I’m pleased to recognise Kevin Flanagan and Jazzman John Clarke from earlier in the day: Clarke’s aphorising on ‘The Fruits of Love’ as I arrive, a poem that ends with the wonderfully bizarre refrain: "it was a jazz salsa tango / a lemon melon mango". It’s accompanied by Flanagan in a four-piece band, this time featuring a violist: all four periodically return to accompany most of the acts I see in a very chilled, yet incredibly skilled improvisatory set.

A young female poet joins the stage at one point: she asks the band if they “fancy a challenge?”, which turns out to be her poem on 'the origins of music'. The musicians begin slow, disjointed and discordant, yet gradually flourish to meet her at the rallying cry which ends her piece – ‘Do anything, because everything, even you, is made of music.’ The evening’s seen a range of performers young and old, loud and quiet, fast and slow; yet this final performance is more apt an ending than I could have predicted. Indeed, it’s been a wonderfully unpredictable day.

All of the sets I listen to throughout the day are united by their spontaneous and improvisatory feel; yet their structures and technical tightness disclose the obvious care taken in the performers’ construction of each of their pieces. It takes an extraordinary amount of skill to achieve this effect, and through this I at the very least feel pleasantly surprised, and unexpectedly inspired, by each of the performers I've seen. After a fortnight of these shows, workshops, jams and slams across the city – which I make a mental note to revisit next year – I'm sure I can't be the only one.

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