After a handful of emails across the Atlantic, I finally caught up with established Norwegian jazz musician, educator and poet Oded Ben Horin. With the assistance of skype, I was able to connect with one of the most innovative and progressive members of the jazz poetry movement today. What sets Oded apart from any other jazz poet, vocalist, composer or musician is deliberate and direct inclusion of science in his music and lyrics. Utilizing his band The Science Fair as an outlet for his work, Oded has traveled the world performing his exciting blend of jazz poetry everywhere from a Neuroscience convention in Norway to headlining Smalls Jazz Club’s poetry feature in New York City.
THE INTERVIEW TOOK PLACE ON FRIDAY, MAY 21, 2010
A: How would you define “jazz poetry”? How did you get into writing about science?
O: What defines jazz poetry for me is the rhythmical aspect of text: The timing of the phrases, the way the words are placed. In my music, the subject matter doesn’t necessarily have to be a jazz musician, a jazz solo or a jazz situation, although many poets do in fact take their thematic inspiration directly from the jazz world. I also find it exciting to improvise the rhythmical aspects of the text. I don’t want to read the text the same way two times: The other musicians in the band are not playing the same things they were last time, either.
How I got into writing about science? Well, I ask myself: What is modern art today? What is my job as a “jazz singer”? I think I should be talk about what is going on in the world, and what is defining our world today is science. Genetics are changing the core of our being. Just yesterday, we heard that a group of scientists have created synthetic life. Global warming, the internet, cell phones, new medicine, you name it! This is all changing our lives from A to Z, or event more than that! I think as an artist who recites words, that has to be my subject matter because that’s what’s making a difference in our lives now. The fact that it’s unusual to talk about these kind of things as a singer is irrelevant. These are the things that are happening now.
A: Would you say that your words are well received in the performances that you’ve been giving? What are some of the reactions you’ve felt?
O: In the beginning the reaction is: “What is that!? What is he doing? Why isn’t he singing a love song? Why isn’t he singing about the beautiful blue sky or the emotions it makes me feel…?” It takes the people by surprise, but after a while they see that there’s a system to it. They start listening and thinking about these subjects, and I think that they realize that it works although these are “bizarre” subjects to sing about.
The initial response when I approach the club owners can be quite skeptical. They think it’s too strange to attract audiences. But next week, we’re performing at the NevroNor neuroscience conference in Norway. Obviously, this is going to work just fine! We’re going to do a half-hour set about the brain. The music can actually work in different settings: Jazz clubs, in festivals or any science or education situation.
A: Right. Do you feel a certain calling or responsibility to educate in your art?
O: Yeah! Absolutely. It’s a marvelous thing to be able inform people of science and new developments. The Science Fair is “pure” music, but it is also a research project focused on how we can use this idea as a creative method of education in schools and beyond. Next Saturday, we’re performing at The International Conference of Qualitative Inquiry at the University of Illinois, where I will present this idea. This Fall, we want to start performing in schools and interviewing children in order to find out if they gained knowledge about science, music and creative ways of learning. I just interviewed the mother of two kids who were at the gig at Smalls and found out her kids learned something by participating in this concert. Isn’t that exciting?
A: Not only that but the children are learning about jazz music as well.
A: It’s all one constant stream. That’s wonderful. How did things go at Smalls? Tell me a bit about the show.
O: The show was very good. Mark Murphy, the singer, was there. It was a pleasure! Quite a few children were there, too, and afterwards Mark was saying “the kids were listening!”. It was a special event. It might have taken some people by surprise, which is good in my book.
A: Right. How did you first come into contact with Smalls? Do you have an extensive relationship with George Guida [Smalls Books] or Lee?
O: I met George Guida last Christmas when I went to a poetry session. I asked if I could read a couple of pieces. He invited me up, and afterwards we had a discussion during which he invited The Science Fair to Smalls.
A: What did you take away from living in the states that you have brought back to Norway?
O: I lived in the states as a kid, so it’s internalized. What I took away from the states was the English language. The English language feels more natural to me than breathing. The expressions. They ways in which you can say things. It is rich with imagination. Also, in the sates there is the whole “let’s do it” approach to life: “Great! Go for it!” You know?
A: I wanted you comment on a video that David Shale made containing your song, “Deeper Than Light”.
O: We had a collaboration with a marine organization called “The Census of Marine Life”. They’re conducting a 10 year study, and mapping of all the world’s oceans. We specifically worked with Mar-Eco, a project that studies life at the mid-Atlantic ridge. We had a musical collaboration that included that movie and recording an entire CD based on their research, which will be out in the fall of 2010.
A: Yeah, it’s really neat. I like how the song itself takes the listener on a journey. The music takes a left turn from the modern sound when it starts swingin’ and you speak poetry over the guitar solo. It was completely unexpected and really exciting to listen to.
O: That’s nice. Thank you.
A: For me, coming from a more traditional background, I’m not used to poetry being spoken over: (A) modern jazz, (B) jazz with this subject matter and (C) with that instrumentation. I’m used to the more traditional aspect of it. So it was exciting.
O: Here in Norway, there is a modern vision of jazz music. They use a lot of electronics…[as if on cue, his cell phone goes off with sounding a disco-like sequence]. Tonal language is very much into experimentation. Combining jazz poetry with the modern music of some of Norway’s and Switzerland’s leading players, with whom I’ve had the honor of making music, is a fascinating combination. I love it.
A: I wanted to ask you about some of the influences you list on your Myspace site. What is it about those poets that attracts you? Would you mind speaking about one of them, perhaps Jack Kerouac?
O: Jack Kerouac looked at the world and said: “I would like to rock this boat! This materialistic, commercial world we’re living in!” In the ’50′s he found an experimental way of saying that. I say: “Here we are in the 21st century, and we are back at the same spot again. We’ve convinced ourselves that technology is going to save us”. I would also, in a humble, ‘we’re not worthy’ kind of way, like to be inspired by Kerouac by saying: “let’s think about this in an alternative, more diversified perspective”. Let’s think about consequences and what is happening as a result of all this. Kerouac’s perspective is what’s interesting for me and the fact that he found a completely new way of expressing these thoughts…that’s what genius is. If I’d like to be inspired by people, Id like for it to be by people like that.
A: For sure. And the atmosphere he left on New York. The clubs at which he used to read and the entire scene which can be noted as a “spark” in the jazz poetry connection. With your most recent trip to NYC, how did it feel to be in the thick of it all?
O: It felt amazing! To perform in a club that really understands that. Lee Kostrinsky understands these things. In New York you have The Bowery and other places where such things go on. It was an honor to be there and be able to present my personal version of what those guys were doing half a century ago in the same place. It’s almost like holy ground.
A: Yeah it certainly is. Smalls itself is the original location of Cafe Wah? where Bob Dylan played in the ’60′s. Not only has the club cultivated an older art [beat poetry] but the space itself is historical.
A: That’s what this is about!
A: Well, what’s next for the Science Fair?
O: After our gig in Norway at the conference and the performance in Illinois, we’re going to Switzerland for a performance in a church. Then, I’m going to go on vacation so I can have energy to do some school concerts in the Fall.
A: What exactly do you teach at the university?
O: Do you have time to hear the whole list? [laughs] I teach jazz vocals, vocal improvisation, music history, music theory, ear training, counterpoint, composing, arranging, choir, ensembles and piano.
A: I had no idea that you had such a formal musical background.
O: I have a BA in musicology and a MA in vocal jazz performance where I specialized in three text-related genres. These would include jazz poetry, vocalese and word jazz like that of Ken Nordine.
A: What can you tell me about Ken Nordine?
O: Ken Nordine is about 90 years old now. He made extremely creative recordings of a genre called Word Jazz. If you visit his website you can check them out.
A: You’ve got so much going on. You’ve got so much fire!
O: That’s right! You need fire? Give me a call [laughs].
A: [laughs] I’m working on my fire, I’m building it. Stick by stick. Do you feel like there is a future for new musicians and new poets? I ask this because Lee brought to my attention that a lot of jazz musicians, particularly now, may look down on poetry.
O: I think that there is undoubtedly a future for jazz and poetry. The fact that some people look down on it is irrelevant. It shows a lack of understanding and that should not be deterrent in any way. The poetry needs to be relevant enough so we can say, “You’re have to listen now!”. You know what I mean?
A: I suppose.
O: The whole concept of what music is or what music should sound like these days is suffering. People lose appreciation for real good sound.
A: That’s what so special about Smalls and Bowery.
O: That’s what’s so special about jazz in general. The fact hat people get up and create such high level music is marvelous. In the “pop” industry, the huge money-maker of music, the actual music is getting less creative all the time.
A: It doesn’t sound like music. [chuckles] Well, yeah. That is a negative tone to wrap this up.
O: The positive thing, though, is that a lot people are making creative music all the time.
A: It’s folks such as yourself. Thanks so much for you time.
O: Thank you!