From 1985 to 1994 Vernon Frazer committed himself to the resurgence of the poetry-music fusion through his recordings and through performances at such venues as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the Knitting Factory, Brandeis University and the University of Massachusetts. A bassist as well as a poet, Frazer combined his musical and literary talents to advance the idiom beyond the bop-oriented approach of the Beat Generation poets and their San Francisco counterparts. Employing free jazz improvisation as his musical grounding, Frazer encouraged his collaborating musicians to improvise on the text as well as the basslines, which he employed to guide the flow of the music.
Frazer performed throughout the northeastern United States, in a variety of formats: as a solo poet-bassist; in a duo with the legendary saxophonist Thomas Chapin; and with the Vernon Frazer Poetry Band, which existed from 1998 to 1993. His performing credits read like a Who’s Who of contemporary jazz, including saxophonists Chapin, John Zorn, Richard McGhee III and Kris Jensen; trombonist Steve Davis; violinist Stephen Scholz; keyboardist Steve Starger; bassists Joe Fonda and Mario Pavone; and percussionists Brian Johnson, Royal Hartigan, Bill Dobrow, Randall Colbourne and Rob Rudin.
Despite near-misses with Cadence, Evidence, Silkheart and Leo records, Frazer self-produced three recordings of poetry and music: Sex Queen of the Berlin Turnpike, SLAM!, and Song of Baobab. Lack of distribution didn’t prevent them from receiving consistently superlative reviews and a cult following in the international cultural underground.
The albums can be heard on YouTube at the links below.
Sex Queen of the Berlin Turnpike
Vernon Frazer, poetry, recitation, bass;
A Conversion (of Sorts)
I’ve been to too many concerts where the opening act consists of a mediocre poet back by “jazz” group. Too often the music and the poetry seem at loggerheads, having little relation to one another. The music is usually timid pointillism and if it gets too loud, the poet looks askance as if thinking, “Hey, man, it’s my show.”
This problem is not encountered on Vernon Frazer’s SEX QUEN OF THE BERLIN TURNPIKE . Part of the reason is that Frazer composed basslines over which the players improvised.
Frazer’s poems are glimpses of people, fragments of everyday life and events…When pieced together, these thirteen poems form a portrait of the landscape of urban America (Reagan’s America). They are not overtly political, but it’s hard to escape the connection if the poet has any grounding in reality. Frazer’s observations are usually right on target and the music is finely attuned to the poems.
Vernon Frazer, recitation and bass
Pilgrimage to the Big Sur Inn
Bassist-Poet Vernon Frazer’s SLAM! is a home-grown recording that is not only loaded with variety but boasts an excellent improvising ensemble and more than a smidgeon of humor. Frazer’s poetry (pr, more accurately, his recital of the poetry) takes a bit of getting used to, but is worth the effort. Stylistically, the music combines disparate elements of free jazz, folk and stream of consciousness mysticism… Overall, it’s an impressive effort. I’m eager to hear more from this impressive talent…Frazer is a creative fellow and his music deserves to be heard.
Song of Baobab
Vernon Frazer, recitation, bass, recorder with alto sax mouthpiece
Thomas Chapin, saxophone, flutes, little instruments
Vernon Frazer’s poetry and music merger has been more successful than most. Perhaps it’s because as a bassist (amateur by his own admission) he understands the music better than most. HIs two previous releases have received favorable reviews for the same reason.
His latest is a series of duets with long-time cohort Thomas Chapin. Chapin was a presence on Frazer’s 1988 release Sex Queen of the Berlin Turnpike and Chapin’s Menagerie Dreams featured a lengthy track with a recitation by Frazer.
Frazer’s poetry consists of barbed, trenchant observations of America at the end of the century. A poetry reading of poseurs inspires the hilariously nasty “An Open Reading at Peter’s Pub.” “A Tale of Two Decades” tells of two veterans holding court at a bar twenty years apart. “The Troglodyte’s Trilogy” takes aim at the sane, nice people whose condescension disguised as pleasantries belies their true motives. “Shana’s Going to Disney world” is a heartfelt poem colored by his mother’s dying from Cancer. Although Frazer’s reading style can be strident and in your face, it’s what his poetry demands. And, there’s a lot of humor which tempers what could merely be one man’s harangue.
Besides, there are two voices at work here. Chapin’s accompaniment is spot on. He seems very familiar with the texts. His split second reactions attest to this. Occasionally he sounds like a second reading voice. Chapin has emerged as one of the best saxophonist of the decade and this is as good a place as any to hear why.