David Budbill

Songs for a Suffering World

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Vermont poet David Budbill (actually a transplanted Ohioan) fortuitously joined forces with iconoclastic jazz bassist William Parker in the mid-'80s after a fan letter from the poet led to an exchange of Budbill's poems and stories and Parker's recordings. Something resonated, and the two men of different races, cultures, and art forms eventually began exploring the possibilities of mutual artistic creation. Listeners of a certain age and disposition will perhaps recall some of the late-'50s coffeehouse experimentation of Jack Kerouac (most notably), accompanied by Steve Allen on piano (yes, that Steve Allen), and on a few occasions by saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. But temperamentally and philosophically, Budbill is much closer to another beat poet, Gary Snyder (aka Jaffe Ryder in Kerouac's Dharma Bums), who celebrated life on the land rather than on the road, and who not only helped to popularize Zen Buddhism as a hip term to name drop, but was a serious practitioner and spiritual seeker. As poets, Snyder and Budbill have much in common, and often draw from the same well of inspiration (for example, both write about the crazed Japanese monk/mystic, Han San) -- but Budbill is less text-oriented, more transparent, and much more the performance artist, and in this respect is closer to another celebrated Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, who sometimes chanted and used a harmonium during live performance. Budbill's message throughout the Songs for a Suffering World is exemplary: an emphasis on simple pleasures and living in the moment, and an antiwar stance that is not merely fashionable but rooted in Buddhist teaching and common sense (i.e., if life is suffering, and every creature is born only to die, why not celebrate what everyone has instead of looking for excuses to compete, quarrel, and kill one another?). The message itself is worthy, but Budbill's conversational delivery and his easy rapport with Parker and Hamid Drake make this a special package. Parker and Drake sometimes chant behind Budbill, providing a counterpoint to his text, and Parker not only plays bass but also improvises on shakuhachi flute, trumpet, cornet, balaphone, glockenspiel, and gongs. Instrumental interludes, with Budbill and Parker dueting on shakuhachis, are not just filler, but artistically satisfying on their own terms. Parker is typically eloquent on bass (and on his other instruments, as well), and Drake assumes the role of sensitive colorist, reinforcing the emotional requirements of the poetry. Budbill has spoken elsewhere of his early appreciation of jazz and of the relationship of his work to an oral tradition derived in part from rural blues. And the restrained but engaged playing of Parker and Drake is a clear indication that they were not just coaxed into a studio (or onto a stage) to add a little background credibility to Budbill's poetry and persona. Rock bottom, a common purpose and aesthetic sensibility brings the three participants together and results in this satisfying and wise recording.

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