“good lip / service”

Reviewed by Paul Watkins

Ornette Coleman—a progenitor of 1960s free-jazz—describes harmoldic music as a performance where “no one player has the lead,” reminding us that jazz is often less about who is speaking than it is about the listening impulse. Kevin McNeilly’s debut poetry collection, Embouchure, rhapsodizes upon that listening impulse vis-à-vis poetic vignettes depicting the interlacing lineages of trumpet players in the States during the pre-bop era (roughly 1890-1939): edited in are jazz geographies, histories, stories, anec- dotes, highpoints, and tragedies (“Bix”: “oblivion and fame / at the same time, / dead by 28”). Swinging from “nastier dul- cets” to “shouting blues,” the collection sounds trumpeters as diverse as Buddy and King through to Sweets, Bix, Valaida Snow, Cat, with three poems dedicated to Louis “Satch” Armstrong. Like a blue note, McNeilly worries the lines between history and depiction, lines which are blurred by many of the musicians in their own mytho- poeic “horn folklore” (“Buddy”). McNeilly’s poetic vignettes remind us that art is largely about how you wish to interpret the truth: “‘Play the horn wide open; / you cannot lie’” (“The Other Red”).

In “Spit Key,” a self-reflexive compendium in Embouchure, McNeilly elucidates that “To play a trumpet you’ve got to develop a good embouchure, a way of blowing through pursed lips and controlling the buzz.” Likewise, to play a poem you need to refine a style; the title poem states: “Style takes care of its own; / chops make the rep.” For McNeilly, stylizing jazz poetics is about finding fulfillment with the “scratchy, flawed recordings,” with the “flaws themselves”—at root, their poetics. Jazz, and the vers libre of the poems, embodies the spit, crackle, and improvisations of performance. Armstrong’s impromptu scatting in “Heebie-Jeebies” (for the first time on record) was the result of a mistake; such mistakes make “Jeebies” a poetic act: “Fumbled leads, obbie scat / and pig Latin / aren’t just mistakes: / they make their own music.”

Typographically representing such extemporaneous happenstance is certainly a challenge: a challenge that occasionally makes Embouchure appear fixated by the page, even as each poem riffs down the page. Like a recording, these poems can only represent various constituencies of essence: “Twelve inches of black paste / tired to capture / its collective essence” (“Buck”). Most fecundly, McNeilly’s poetic vignettes capture unheard sounds—with some irony—as evidenced in the poem, “Unknown”: “their music’s unsung source.” Another instance of recovery is in the dedications to the women trumpeters whose chops equal their male counterparts: “The sad truth was she could / rip them to shreds / with one or two choice lines, / but never got the chance / to strut her stuff” (“Meoux”). Such discrepant engagement makes Embouchure a compelling read, even as words sometimes fail, as reflected in “Wingy,” which asks: “who needs words / when you’ve got a solid riff?”

McNeilly’s poetic portrayals do not preclude ending; rather, much like Amiri Baraka’s notion of “the changing same,” they suggest ‘new’ possibilities for substantial relistenings. As every note has its own shape, its own mouth, so too does every musician in this collection. Embouchure is about getting into the grooves of history (“you find a groove”) in order to respond to the present. Certainly a follow-up on bop/ post-bop trumpet players would make for a great companion, with luminaries such as Lester Bowie, Miles Davis, Diz, Clifford Brown, Dave Douglas, Freddie Hubbard, Cynthia Robinson, Phil Cohran, and so on, as possible candidates. A fine debut collection that spits some “good lip / ser- vice” in homage to some of the players who not only helped to define American music, but modern and postmodern poetics.

This review ““good lip / service”” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 177-78.

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