In 2012, three years before he died, Pulitzer-prize winner and U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine began performing his poetry to the accompaniment of saxophonist Benjamin Boone and a tight ensemble of jazz instrumentalists. Levine’s voice was sure and smooth, his poetry sharply evocative. The 14-track collection that grew out of the collaboration—The Poetry of Jazz (Origin), released earlier this year—demonstrates how well carefully crafted language and improvised music complement each other.

Producer Boone invited several notable guest artists to perform on select tracks, among them saxophonists Chris Potter on an homage to Sonny Rollins, “The Unknowable” (“Wood-shedding, they called it/But his woodshed was the world”) and Branford Marsalis on an homage to John Coltrane, “Soloing” (“I can hear the music of the world/In the silence in that word, soloing”). The entire album itself is an homage to Levine, though, whose ear for language recalls Charlie Parker’s ear for bebop. (“Call It Music” is Levine’s wistful ode to Parker: “Some days I catch a rhythm, almost a song, in my own breath.”)

Giacomo Gates partnered with the 17-piece New England Jazz Ensemble to create a jazz version of composer Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”; Gates not only wrote the clever libretto for the 35-minute jazz opus but narrates it, too. Like the 1936 original, the piece is a didactic musical fairytale meant to help kids learn all of the instruments in the orchestra. The modern version takes the instruction a step further: not only does Gates’ text identify the usual jazz instruments, but each character in the story is assigned its own groove. The piece is one of six Prokoviev- or wolf-inspired compositions on the eponymous album (New England Jazz Ensemble). Even the coolest of the cool will smile at this one.

Among the notable summer reads for lovers of vocal jazz: British writer Peter Jones’ This is Hip: The Life of Mark Murphy (Equinox) chronicles the career of the legendary hipster, from his early years in upstate New York through his contributions as a prolific recording artist and always-touring musician to his final concert at Joe’s Pub in 2013. Jones’ biography contains a slew of stories and quotes about and from some of the most accomplished jazz musicians of our time.

In his new autobiography, pianist/songwriter David Frishberg talks about his life on the road and in the music business in My Dear Departed Past (Backbeat). Behind the amusing anecdotes lie some harsh truths about the life of musicians; leave it to Frishberg, though, to find the humor in it all. Like Frishberg, Judy Carmichael uses humor to cover the bite in her memoir, Swinger! A Jazz Girl’s Adventures from Hollywood to Harlem (C&D Productions). In this entertaining read the jazz pianist and NPR host reveals what it takes to navigate the precarious path of a performer’s life, one brave step at a time.

Writer Elaine Poole ran jazz legend Anita O’Day’s independent record company, her husband John was Anita’s drummer, and O’Day even lived with them for several years. In Jazz, Genius, and Jail: Adventures of Anita O’Day, 1910-1969 (Emily Productions), Poole recounts 600+ pages’ worth of first-hand anecdotes about the glamorous singer and the many stellar musicians in her orbit. Told from Poole’s point of view, the level of detail in the book is impressive. (Note to scholars: No references, however.)

Singer Tessa Souter just released Anything I Can Do You Can Do Better: How To Unlock Your Creative Dreams and Change Your Life (Amazon Digital) in the U.S. The book, part memoir, all inspiration, draws on Souter’s years as a singer and writer both here and abroad. Unlike the biographies, though, this one’s a helpmate for creatives of all stripes.

Catch them when they drop: First, Arianna Neikrug, the 2015 winner of the Sarah Vaughan vocal contest, releases her debut album, Changes, for Concord on Aug. 24; the young singer’s take on standards, originals, and vintage ‘70s pop tunes distinguishes her as one of the year’s best discoveries yet. Next, singer/pianist Noa Fort will spend a good portion of the month on tour in Europe, but she’ll be back in New York by Aug. 27 to release her new CD, No World Between Us (s/p) at Cornelia Street Café. Finally, the multi-talented singer/sax player Camille Thurman will release her new CD, Waiting for the Sunrise (Chesky), at Dizzy’s on Aug. 30.

Photo: Jose Osejo/NPR

(Reprinted from the August 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)