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Ammons: A Sheaf of Words for Piano

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I have put up on Sound Cloud a copy of a collaborative audio piece called Ammons: A Sheaf of Words for Piano, which as my notes below will tell you was recorded a couple of years ago with Montreal-area pianist Geoff Mitchell. I intend to publish the suite of poems as a chapbook, but for now the audio is out there; individual tracks will also soon be available for download via my website, http://www.kevinmcneilly.ca. Track listings and credits are temporarily available as a pdf here.
The poems in Ammons: A Sheaf of Words for Piano are linked idiomatically, for me, to the work I did for Embouchure. That is, they take for their subject matter stories of the life and music of an African-American jazz icon, in this instance the great boogie-woogie pianist, Albert Ammons. My friend Geoff Mitchell, as well as being an excellent sound recordist and artist (he did the cover drawing for Embouchure), is a brilliant pianist and improviser. He had told me when I was visiting with him in 2010 that he had been working on boogie woogie piano techniques and thinking about the historicisms of present-day jazz, and he mentioned Albert Ammons and his colleagues as influences; I wanted to collaborate with Geoff on a piece, so I started writing poems based on Albert Ammons’s music, taking cues from track titles, from events in his life, and from viewing the short film Boogie Woogie Dream, a peculiar mix of documentary and fiction shot on location in Café Society and featuring him, Pete Johnson, Lena Horne and Teddy Wilson, acting and playing.
I brought a suite of ten poems with me when I was next in Montreal, and we recorded together. (The eleventh poem, the Mondrian piece, is a typographical-visual text and is next to impossible to read. In any case, it was composed a bit later.)  Geoff’s music was all freely improvised, but references the historical idiom in all kinds of interesting ways. The piano wasn’t meant to act as accompaniment, but more as commentary, and even critique of the words – at least, that’s what I think it was meant to do. The multi-tracked pieces are intended as homages to the two- and three-piano music of Ammons, Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis. All of the pieces, for me, are intended to be respectful homage. (The coda on Lena Horne was coincidentally composed around the time of her death, which I didn’t know about until after I had finished a full draft of the poem.) Race, gender and nationality are put at issue here, but because they form a crucial part of this music’s history. I necessarily come at this material as an epigone outsider, but I’m also drawn to the music viscerally, as a listener. That sometimes recalcitrant, sometimes negotiable tension between inside and outside, between deference and expression, between self and public domain, is what this suite intends to take on, at the level of voice and instrument: a conversation, a debate, a dialogue.
I’d like to thank Geoff Mitchell for his incredible music here.


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