Jack Kerouac with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims: Blues and Haikus

Period performances of Jack Kerouac with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims

Although Jack Kerouac was the “voice of his (beat) generation,” it was his his writing – rather than his speaking – voice that’s well-known. His three albums of spoken word poetry and prose, two from 1959 and one from 1960, received little circulation or critical notice upon their initial issue, and have only been spottily reissued ever since. Rhino’s 1990 box set The Jack Kerouac Collection included all three albums, as does the recent The Complete Collection, and individual album reissues have been available as imports. Rock Beat now adds domestic reissues of Kerouac’s first two albums (originally released on the indie Hanover-Signature label), Poetry for the Beat Generation and Blues and Haikus.

Where Poetry for the Beat Generation was an impromptu session with Steve Allen tinkling piano melodies behind Kerouac’s recitations, Blues and Haikus is more of a conversation between Kerouac and his accompanists, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. Rather than reciting across background music, Kerouac trades riffs with Cohn and Sims, each responding to the tone, rhythm and content of the other. Even Cohn’s piano sounds more responsive to Kerouac than did Allen’s improvised backings. Kerouac sounds more comfortable in this environment; as Gilbert Millstein’s original liner note suggest, this second effort is less tentative and more authoritative than Kerouac’s previous recorded outing. Kerouac even feels free enough to warble part of “Hard Hearted Old Farmer,” and his expressiveness transcends his limitations as a singer.

This is more polished effort than was Poetry for the Beat Generation, and in that sense, it’s also more performed than simply exhaled. Each is worth hearing, particularly if you’re a fan of Kerouac’s writing, but this one is the more musical experience, and one that you’re more likely to return to. Like its predecessor, this album drew little attention or sales upon its original release, and became a collector’s item over the years. But with Kerouac’s legacy having only grown over the decades, it’s available once again to fans. RockBeat’s reissue augments the album’s original four tracks with two lengthy bonuses from the original sessions, and includes the original liner notes by New York Times reviewer (and early Kerouac proponent) Gilbert Millstein. If you’ve enjoyed reading Kerouac’s writing, you’ll be further enlightened by the voice and rhythm he gives to these readings. [©2012 Hyperbolium]

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