Conjure up an image of a spoken-word artist fronting a jazz ensemble, and most people will cringe, envisioning a beret-wearing beatnik snapping fingers and reading haiku while a bass and drum thump and twang behind him. Then there's the image of the tentative poet sporting a deer-in-the-headlights look while oblivious musicians thunder and drone over the speaker's words. The concept's been done to death -- it's at best a novelty act, at worst a fiasco that satisfies neither poetry nor music aficionados.
Casting such clichés aside, however, are the East Bay's Positive Knowledge, named from a phrase in the sacred writings of the Baha'i faith that informs and inspires their work. The trio seamlessly blends poetics with an avant-garde brand of creative jazz. They have been honing and refining their craft for more than twenty years, emerging with a musical formula in which voice carries as much weight as any other instrument, holding its own in improvisatory counterpoint to horn and drums even while spinning images and telling stories.
The sheer longevity of the band may explain how this trio manages to make the unholy union of words and jazz sound so natural. While the group also includes local drummer Spirit, the sound of Positive Knowledge revolves around the marital and creative union of Oluyemi and Ijeoma Thomas, two artists whose mutual respect and spiritual understanding have forged an almost telepathic connection that translates into a transcendent musical-poetic experience. On their latest release, at the center of the threshold, Oluyemi plays bass clarinet and soprano saxophone while Ijeoma weaves in words, using repetition and improvisation to keep pace with the blistering sounds of the horns.
The two met in San Francisco in 1978. Oluyemi was newly arrived from Detroit, Michigan and working as an engineer, while Ijeoma was in town on business from Washington, DC. They struck up a friendship, and an artistic collaboration soon followed.
One thing they had in common was a love of music. Oluyemi had grown up on the Motown sound, and later cut his jazz teeth on the avant-garde scene of the late sixties, seeing musicians like Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, and Pharaoh Sanders as they toured through Detroit. Ijeoma, meanwhile, was raised on a strange mélange of gospel music, Ella Fitzgerald, and opera. Through it all, she also held a fascination for words. "Words always had music in them," she says. "To me, words are a form of music, the way that they're spoken, the spaces in between, the volume, all those things. Many of my relatives are from the South, so they have that particular way of speaking, a particular pace that lends itself to drama, and so that type of music was just there naturally."
But it's their foundation in world culture, especially African, that lifts Positive Knowledge above the hackneyed stereotype of the jazz/poetry combo. "I see [storytelling] as an evolving art form that goes way back to Africa," says Ijeoma. "All those spirits had a story to tell and they told it with music, and they had the oral history that was passed on through this art form."
Besides Africa, says Oluyemi, he also has a deep interest in the music of the Middle East, the Far East, Latin America, and Europe. "The temperature in their own landscapes, the smell, the food, the weather -- that has an effect on how a cat's going to blow his music," he says. "I'm fascinated how that happens with a person from Bangladesh or Nigeria -- what they take from sound and how they use it."
All of the common ground they share, however, doesn't mean it hasn't been a challenge to meld their forms. "I think of voice as an instrument," says Ijeoma. "When I'm working with Oluyemi or with other artists, that's the place that I take, and that's the way I hope to be used, as an instrument. It's been a learning process for me to know how to merge with music. ... I'm not out front with the music backing me, I'm a link in the chain of the music ... sometimes the words are heard, sometimes they're not, sometimes they're just in the flow of it."
For his part, Oluyemi tries to stay within the context of the tales Ijeoma's telling in the poem. "It's taking her someplace," he says. "It's a journey ... where's this piece going? Where's it starting? Where's the connection? Where are we going to arrive? It's sort of like landing a plane."
There's the dance of tonal shifts between voice and horn in their music, a virtuosic duet in which both use improvisation and narrative techniques to give a sense of story and depth. These elements are all in evidence on "Texas Sonrise," one of the more striking tracks on threshold. It tells the story of James Byrd, Jr., an African-American man who was dragged to death behind a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas, in June 1998. During the song Ijeoma repeats the words and phrases "Chains/no chance ... was it a short-cut?" sliding her inflection up and down until the meanings begin to shift from inquisitive to angry to pleading, while Oluyemi wails desperately alongside with his horn, his free-form squeaks and squiggles describing the death throes of the victim, providing a glimmer of hope and even jubilation at the end.
The Thomases admit that this kind of intense artistic collaboration has been a challenge for their marriage as well. But, says Ijeoma, "Over the years -- and it's been 22 years now -- we've learned to give each other space and flow. It takes effort, but the result in many cases is so wonderful that it helps balance out the challenging part."
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