Everton Sylvester's funk poetry [an error occurred while processing this directive]
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 16, 2002) – Modern attempts to combine poetry and music lie scattered in the dust of neo-Beat, bebop cliches. This made the successful fusion of Everton Sylvester’s spoken-word narratives and the jazz-funk of the Searching for Banjo trio all the more pleasureable for those who caught them at Club Helsinki on Thursday night.

Avoiding the sing-song rhyming that makes so much rapping sound like boastful nursery rhymes, Sylvester instead draws upon a bardic tradition of poetic storytelling that could work equally well on the page or recited a capella.

But with the addition of his superb trio of downtown-jazz musicians, especially bassist Booker King and reedman Paul Shapiro, Sylvester’s story-poems are brought to life with greater depth and texture. The music even becomes part of the narrative, as in one short piece in which Sylvester described the shape of a former lover’s body that used to lie next to the narrator in bed, and Shapiro virtually sculpted the curves of her body with his bluesy, sultry tenor saxophone lines.

“Cat Litter,” a similar piece, painted a portrait of urban loneliness, with Sylvester describing a modern woman’s lonely, isolated existence leaving crowded midtown Manhattan for her studio apartment on a cold winter evening, as Shapiro played noirish, sad, Lester Young-like blues.

The musicians also added comic commentary at times. On “Date with Baby” --which so perfectly captures the poetry of contemporary psychobabble it could probably go right to the pages of the New Yorker as a short story – King’s standup bass mocked the narrator’s pathetic attempt to get one last salty kiss out of a doomed relationship. And on “Prince Albert,” Shapiro’s comic tenor riff beautifully offset the irate tone of a mother’s lecture, scolding her son for his genital piercing that results in a wet bathroom floor every time he needs to relieve himself.

Sylvester’s poems work individually as short narratives or pictures, but also build collectively a portrait of a world – contemporary New York seen through an immigrant’s eyes. Sometimes the eyes look back homeward, as in “Backyard in Bed-Stuy,” where a backyard hammock in Brooklyn recalls a similar scene in the poet’s native Jamaica.

But mostly Sylvester’s work paints a New York landscape of the moment, with bit parts played by Islamic cab drivers, trigger-happy policemen, too many Starbucks coffee shops and government bureaucrats, and the rush of vitality that a simple walk down a Manhattan street with a friend – even a lover laying down the end of a relationship – can bring.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 17, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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