Nobody could ever accuse John Sinclair of not doing his own thing. The Detroit-born poet and activist has been defying The Man since the mid-sixties: running countercultural magazines, founding anti-racist political movements and managing the MC5, one of the most mindblowing musical acts to come out of America in the psychedelic era. He was also sentenced to ten years imprisonment for a seemingly minor drug infringement, but was released with the help of John Lennon (who wrote a song about his plight), Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman, amongst others.
More recently Sinclair has combined his love of the history of jazz with his considerable talent as a performance poet and storyteller to produce a surprisingly extensive body of work, mostly in the form of spoken word releases, often backed by his band the Blues Scholars. For his latest release, Mohawk, he has pillaged his own past, collecting ten poems written over the last twenty-plus years and giving them a thoroughly modern shakedown with the help of multi-instrumentalist Steve Fly.
The premise is simple: Sinclair recites a bunch of poems linked by their intimacy with the jazz world (most notably the bebop of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, whose names become the album’s lyrical leitmotifs) while Fly creates a singular musical universe using the instruments and time signatures of the original jazz maestros combined with his own contemporary tweaks.
The title track introduces the cast (including the ‘out of place’ Buddy Rich, complete with his own out of place – but perfectly placed – drum fill) and pitches us straight into Sinclair’s world. He is at once ironic and wide-eyed, as if both speaking through his great real-life characters and speaking of them in awe. Straight No Chaser is full of Fly’s turntable manipulation, while the flute-heavy Leap Frog uses the child’s game as smart metaphor for the pace and progression of ideas in the inter-war jazz scene. Bloomdido cleverly aligns the creation of improvisational music with an almost Dadaist kind of sound-poetry.
The most interesting lyric is perhaps Eronel, which begins as a sweet and funny anecdote about Thelonious Monk’s band before offering a ‘twisted glimpse into the mind of Monk at work,’ complete with a reference to Poe’s Raven and some madly ballooning double bass. Equally impressive is the poetic volte-face performed in My Melancholy Baby, where Sinclair transports us in an instant from New York to New Orleans, from Monk to Toussaint, and from the 1940s to near enough the present day. It shows Sinclair at his most bighearted, and proves that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, his social conscience remains undimmed.
Written down, these poems may appear slight – full of post-beat generation mannerisms and the anachronistic language of the subcultural sixties. But the sincerity with which Sinclair performs them helps to overcome these criticisms. In fact, the more you listen, the clearer it becomes that the far-out hippie-speak is not a put-on. It is an integral part of Sinclair’s delivery, his modus operandi. This is how the world appeared and still appears to him, and he wants to tell you all about it, so you’d better listen. This is a kind of history lesson after all. And it is one of the most fun history lessons you are ever likely to hear.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Released Monday 24th March 2013 by Iron Man Records