Poet turns to jazz to explore her roots

Lisa Brimmer
Lisa Brimmer's path led her to jazz, from the heady days of the genre's innovative past to the eclectic exploration of modern forms.
Photo courtesy of Lisa Brimmer

When a poet embarks on a journey of discovery, what she learns can take the audience on surprising turns.

Lisa Brimmer's path led her to jazz, from the heady days of the genre's innovative past to the eclectic exploration of modern forms.

So when the 26-year-old hears a song by Tribe Called Quest from its album "Midnight Marauders," she wants to know more about the music that lies underneath. Her curiosity turned her to the group's use of cover by guitarist Jack Wilkins. Brimmer's search for the composer led her to the late trumpeter Freddy Hubbard, once one of the world's finest trumpeters.

Many listeners of hip-hop might not focus intently on the music underneath a rapper's voice. But those sampled tracks often draw on jazz, a treasured part of the African-American experience, and a huge influence on modern music and art.

Brimmer aims to explore those crucial inks by fusing poetry and spoken word with improvisational jazz from the stage, a combination she hopes will lure more young people to the music she loves while opening their minds to universal messages. But she concedes that her mission won't be easy in a time when jazz doesn't attract enough of a younger audience — unless she can connect with "the right musicians and the right young people."

"It's incredibly frustrating," she said. "It shouldn't be pulling teeth to get some of my lady friends to come to a jazz gig, you know. It shouldn't be as difficult as it is. I think largely they don't understand the language. They don't understand what's happening going on ... and all of the beautiful nuances that make seeing live performance so wonderful."

Reconnecting the classic genre with modern thought, Brimmer performs her work with High Society, a group of acclaimed local musicians that includes bassists Chris Bates and Andrew Foreman, guitarist Evan Montgomery, cellist Cory Grossman, drummer and sound engineer Greg Schutte, saxophonist Ben Doherty and drummer Pete Hennig on banjo and percussion. Other musicians will sit in during her shows.

Lisa Brimmer
Lisa Brimmer's work explores the complexity of modern life -- loneliness and isolation and a key part of the modern American ethos: the myth of the self-made individual, and the idea that we can all make it on our own.
Photo courtesy of Lisa Brimmer

The settings are becoming natural for Brimmer who increasingly performs to music.

"It helps me sort of access a more spiritual connection with the work that sometimes can be empty if the room's energy isn't right," she said.

As Brimmer prepares for a reading, she knows that her audience often comes with preconceived notions. Sometimes they leave surprised. Perhaps because she is a young black woman, some expect her to draw heavily on hip-hop, the sound of her generation. Others might listen for a voice of defiance.

"I found in a lot of different instances that people are not only surprised at the peace or the harmony... but maybe [by] the lack of anger. Or my work is perhaps not as harsh," she said. "I didn't grow up in a project or even in an African-American home interestingly enough so my relationship with African-American culture isn't necessarily what they see perpetrated on TV and what has been typified as the African-American experience."

The adopted child of white parents, Brimmer grew up in largely white Lodi, Wis., where she was a drummer and drum major in high school. Her focus on jazz springs in part from her immersion in African-American culture as a young adult. She came to the Twin Cities to study at the University of St. Thomas, and found a creative home in poetry, later winning a Givens Fellowship for African-American Literature.

Her work explores the complexity of modern life — loneliness and isolation and a key part of the modern American ethos: the myth of the self-made individual, and the idea that we can all make it on our own. For Brimmer, such a focus on personas comes at a cost: a growing sense of anxiety among people who feel disconnected from others.

"In America we're very isolated and our individualism is valued to the point that we are really losing a lot of the communal nature that we had," she said. "These sort of mythologies are one of the things that, are some of the things that make this nation great but they also are contributing to a lot of depression and a lot of anxiety because people don't know that we have each other's backs. There's sort of this feeling of being lost."

It's a feeling she address in her poem "I Sometimes Blind Be," a work that is better heard than read — a quality that owes much to improvisation.

"I'm playing a lot with breath and also with syntax in a way because I think as poets and I think just as jazz musicians, just as anyone who has style in what they do we find ourselves in ruts," she said. "We find ourselves always creating, recreating the same wheel over and over and I think it's important for us to kind of push our aesthetics a little bit."

Brimmer learned she could perform in a jazz setting while working with Lulu's Playground an improvisational band led by trumpeter Adam Meckler. That band, which includes Grossman, Montgomery, Schutte and accordionist Steven Hobert, helped her poetry leap from the page. She now thinks of herself as another instrument in the band, able to adapt her poems on the spot.

"It's very exciting because I think the poem, it changes in front of the audience, she said. "No matter how in sync the different guys are, how well they know each other's tendencies, there's still that possibility that anything could happen."

As an artist, Brimmer doesn't want to dwell on the past. She simply wants to convey the richness of the African-American experience, a culture that isn't defined by one moment in time. Convincing others that jazz still lives is a mission she readily accepts.

"We have that barrier of it being jazz and it being spoken word and unfortunately those are two things I do kind of love," she said. "I think that it will be interesting to bring that to audiences that are less adept in jazz, less of aware of its nuances and how accessible it can be.

"I feel like the audience largely has their walls up against spoken word poetry and some of that is just cause. I would like them to leave saying that was really great... maybe I didn't think that I would like it but I do. We have that barrier of it being jazz and it being spoken word and unfortunately those are two things I do kind of love. And I think that it will be interesting to bring that to audiences that are less adept in jazz, less aware of its nuances and how accessible it can be."

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