Moments before the quartet of accomplished and versatile musicians was set to take the stage for a show of improvised rock, the guitarist approached a stairwell.
Spotting a writer and jazz aficionado in the shadow of great instrumentalists, he couldn’t help but toss a playful verbal jab: “Ah, the jazz corner.”
It wasn’t meant as a slight. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for artists who make their living playing today’s popular music to jam with jazz musicians, for whom they have the highest respect.
But a growing number of artists whose work touches on jazz but is not limited to it want a musical world free of categories and labels.
Among the Twin Cities ensembles who don’t owe their identity to any one genre is High Society, a group that fuses poetry and improvisational music.
Led by poet Lisa Brimmer, High Society offers listeners and readers a place where distinctly different creative worlds intersect to create a new style of creative consciousness. It also aims to offer a musical space for poets to be heard and seen.
Joining her on stage are bassist Andrew Foreman, drummer Kahlil Brewington, trumpeter Steve Kenny and guitarists Evan Montgomery, Todd Clouser and Park Evans.
In a performance tonight at the Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar in St. Paul, the group presents its latest installment, “LoveyDovey: High Society is for Lovers,” a show that will include poets Amira Masri, Kevin Kaoz Moore and Saymoukda Vongsay.
Here’s my recent exchange with Brimmer on High Society and how the performers aim to connect with their audience.
Can you tell me how High Society has evolved? Is it a rotating cast of performers who bring different elements?
We have a really open door policy as far as players are concern that just keeps giving. Everyone is allowed to experiment with new sounds and riffs and textures. I am certain that I have the right people in the room when what we do is an approach in and of itself. I trust these guys like family up there which is really important when you are improvising. It’s a trust fall every show. Not just because I’m reading my poetry and work but because anything could happen. And that’s a good thing.
Not everyone plays on each piece and it really works. We have been honored to make music that moves from hip hop to rock to blues to electronic and grunge and folk: it’s a circus… a beautiful circus. There are no boundaries because all the folks that continue to work with High Society are not about those notions of genre that are struggling to maintain their relevance in a landscape where the audience can self select.
High Society is impure in that sense. We’re not pop, I’m not an r&b singer and the players are certainly not solely jazz artists. Because of the amalgamation of influences even if I start singing, when I start singing I don’t think they’ll know what to call us, and that’s the point. We’re just High Society.
Would you say this is about music, poetry or both?
This is about the experience. Every show or episode is different even if I’ve read a poem before. It is about poetry in that I write poetry and try to deliver it as honestly and clearly as possible. It does not qualify as slam. I don’t even know if it is “spoken word” but I know that the poems have a life that is honored when High Society is in session. I find that a “reading” is less accessible than what we can do when there are more of us.
It becomes like film when we partner with a visual artist. We are all tapping into the same energy source. And the audience is in on it too. That is one thing that has surprised me over the last six months. The audience just vibes with us and is just as much a part of High Society as me or an instrument. It’s awful and beautiful at the same time.
Tell me about this LoveyDovey concept. Is this about love or love and heartbreak?
Love is heartbreak, isn’t it? LoveyDovey is different, even for us. In the past we have done random poems, we did a show called Aesthetic Static about beauty, we did a series of shows called Akademic (POP) Art that explored different schools of art aesthetics (blues, cool, post, folk). LoveyDovey is an opportunity for us to camp out and read some love poems. The ultimate universal: Love. It touches us all in different ways and so I’ll be reading some of my love poetry and maybe cover the poems of a few others.
A first for High Society, we also invited a few other poets to come and join us. Kevin Kaoz Moore is one and he is actually celebrating the digital release of his new album on Tuesday, ENTERSEXTIONS vol. 1. Amira Masri, a playful and energetic young voice whom I’ve recently come to know and Saymoukda Vongsay a Lao-American poet and playwright who is one of the best folks I know. She is also a hyphenated writer (poet and playwright) just like me and we have worked together a few years now on Pillsbury House Theater’s Chicago Avenue Project. I can’t wait to share a stage with her.
Where are you going, artistically speaking?
I plan on writing some songs with the guys this year so we can play more shows. I believe we are doing something different that is about openness and acceptance and so we want to do it as many places as possible. Mixtape coming soon.
I am a newly selected fellow for the Givens Foundation for African American Literature and am really excited about that. I plan on publishing this year, which is scary but feels very tangible. I’m also working with #group on some new theater projects. #group is a group of new, exciting voices that were hand selected by the folks down at Illusion Theater in Minneapolis. Though we’re just getting started and learning about each other I have this feeling we are going to make some really quality work.