(Poet Tim Seibles and jazz bassist/composer Chris Brydge. Photo by Jennifer Fish.) 

By Tom Robotham 

Most of us, I suspect, were introduced to poetry through the written word, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. And yet, when we read poems in silence—in the same way that we typically read prose—we lose something important. To my mind, at least, poems do not truly come to life until they are spoken. 

In ancient cultures, in fact, this was a given. The lyric poets of ancient Greece, for example, commonly performed their poems to the accompaniment of a lyre. The Psalms of the Hebrew Bible, moreover, were originally meant to be sung, or chanted, with instrumental backing.

After the introduction of the printing press, the tradition began to fade, but it never died away entirely.  In the 1950s, the Beatniks famously embraced it, as did some Black poets in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is a prime example.

More recently, former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky has performed and recorded readings of his poems in concert with a variety of jazz musicians. 

Now Tim Seibles, Emeritus Professor of English at Old Dominion University and former Virginia Poet Laureate, has contributed to the tradition with a new CD titled, Something Like We Did, in partnership with jazz bassist Chris Brydge. 

The project was Brydge’s brainchild, Seibles told me recently. Initially, he floated the idea of a live performance, and when that went over well, he suggested that they make a record together. 

It was a stroke of genius. Listening to the final product, in fact, I couldn’t help wondering why Seibles hadn’t done such a thing long ago. He is, after all, not only a great writer but a superb reader of his own work. (That certainly can’t be said of many poets, no matter how well they craft their poems.) Perhaps he was just waiting for the right partner to come along. 

That’s one of the most striking characteristics of the album—the gracefulness with which Seibles and Brydge play off of each other. That’s no easy task. I’ve heard other performances of this sort in which the instrumentals seem little more than background music, or perhaps worse, serve as a distraction. In this case, it’s clear that Brydge was as immersed in the poems and their mood and meaning as Seibles was. 

Seibles’ voice, in turn, complements the deep resonance of Brydge’s bass, with a quietly intense, cognac-smooth delivery. From start to finish, the tracks are so engrossing that you can imagine yourself sitting in some dimly lit 1950s Greenwich Village club alongside Ginsberg and Kerouac. 

Adding to the overall effect is the fact that the tracks are separated by only the briefest of pauses—a production decision that makes the album seem all of a piece.

On the other hand, from track to track, there’s rich variation in tone and texture. 

The album opens with sharp staccato bass notes as Seibles delivers with a jolt the opening line of “With No Hat,” one of his newer works included in Voodoo Libretto: New and Selected Poems. It’s a good one with which to begin the album because it typifies so much of Seilbes’ poetry, in that it’s both whimsical and deep. “With no hat / no shirt, no pants, the poem walks / the early afternoon.” Thus personified, the “poem” heads downtown and “loves it, loves being out, being seen…” In contrast to that lightness, the piece ends with an allusion to the Eucharist: “This is my body, take and eat”—the poem thus transformed into both savior and sacrificial figure. 

The next poem, like several others on the record, is read without accompaniment—appropriately so, since it contains the line, “I just wanted to know what the strings would say concerning my soul.” The poem—“Ode to My Hands”—was published in 2012, so the line is obviously not a direct reference to the strings on Brydge’s bass. But having just heard those strings reverberate, then go silent, I couldn’t help ascribing new meaning to the words in the context of the record. 

Immediately thereafter, we get to hear what the strings say concerning our souls, as Brydge takes the spotlight with a lovely bass solo that reminded me of my all-time favorite bassist, Ron Carter. As the album went on, however, I was struck by the variety of Brydge’s playing. It occurred to me that, with only a single instrument featured on the album, the accompaniment could have become repetitive. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. From track to track, Brydge adapts to the mood. There is a beautiful solo, midway, for example, that struck me as having a Middle Eastern feel in its melodic line, and another—bowed—that precedes the line, “It was already evening…” and conveys the deep inner reflection often brought on by nightfall. 

From there, the mood shifts again, into several poems that celebrate sensuality, including two of Seibles’ most popular: “The Ballad of Satie LaBabe,” and “First Kiss.” 

“The Ballad of Satie LaBabe,” published in 1992, is the story of “a magic sister / Lord, even a blind man couldn’a missed’er”—a goddess of a woman “who moved like water poured / The shapes she shaped had angels floored.” It’s another example of Seibles’ talent for writing multilayered poems—in this case, one that can’t help but bring a smile to your face, while also causing you to reflect on people we’ve all encountered who radiate an almost super-human sexual intensity. 

“First Kiss,”—which appears in his 2004 collection Buffalo Head Solos and has always been one of my favorites—takes up the next track, continuing the theme of sensual delights but with more surrealistic language—a recollection of a woman’s “mouth that pulled up / like a baby-blue Cadillac / packed with canaries driven by a toucan…” Brydge’s pizzicato accompaniment perfectly complements the poem’s recollections of a moment of delight. 

I don’t like to use the word “masterpiece” too loosely, but this record is wholly deserving of the accolade. Its official release is not until early April, but when it becomes available, I strongly recommend you snap up a copy—or perhaps a few, to give as gifts. You’ll be able to purchase it on timseibles.com. For my part, I plan to play it for my American Literature students next semester. I can’t think of a better way to drive home the idea that poems are meant to be heard, like music.