Going Tribal

OK, so there's this local outfit, see? Irritable Tribe of Poets. And judging by how quickly they returned my calls, and how patiently they answered my questions, they're not really that irritable at all. They're not technically a tribe, either; they don't share a common ancestry, not even in terms of their music and their lyrics. And they're not all poets. The spoken-word portion of the membership is revolving, in fact, and the Tribe's core is made up of musicians. It's OK, though. If things go the way drummer Jonathan Priest wants, they'll have to change the name before long, anyway. "We want to create spontaneous art," he says. "Right now the media are spoken word and music. But I envision where we can do every type of media, all at once. So, for example, I foresee having a visual artist with a canvas on stage and a spoken word artist, and dancers and musicians doing an improvisation of all the arts."

The Tribe was born during Priest's Groovewell Music Series, last year at The Orpheum. With those shows, he put ska and reggae bands on the same bill with avant-garde jazz and what-have-you, twice a week for a month. He got a group of local hotshots together to do two shows with Indian tabla player Vijay Ghate, and the idea stuck, says Priest, "'cause I think there's a portion of the population that just wants to hear new things and they're supportive of all those without really labeling it as something. So this Tribe of Poets thing is a conglomeration of all those concepts — where every style of music is fair game."

To that end, he's assembled a diverse troupe of crack players to play what he calls "multi-ethnic improvisational music": Jonathan Powell, on trumpet and samples, is or has been aligned with such groups as avant-jazzers SHIM, Zappa mavens Bogus Pomp, ska band [email protected] and the groove-jazz group Tibetan Sound Orgy; bassist Philip Booth currently plays in the straight-ahead jazz outfit Greenwich Blue and is a music journalist; Vincent Sims, on guitar, is president of the Al Downing Jazz Society, a member of [email protected], and has played with jazz singer Belinda Womack and soukous outfit Amandla Tunesmith; percussionist and vocalist Jim Beckwith (who picked up where Vijay Ghate left off) is a coveted session man who has played with Fred Johnson, and just put out his own worldbeat-influenced CD with Los Angeles band Native Vibe; and Priest himself has been a member of [email protected], Tibetan Sound Orgy, PW Fenton & The Second Ward (the house band at the old Oak Barrel), and has played with veteran bluesman James Peterson.

This lineup guarantees exciting musical tension. But it doesn't constitute poetry. That element involves people like Kwabena Dinizulu (host of the "For Lovers Only" program on WMNF-88.5 FM, and a teacher of the African griot tradition), Bradley Morewood, Farrell X. Hall and Tampa's very first poet laureate, James Tokley. All but Hall participated in the jams at the Orpheum last year. NYC native Hall hooked up with the Irritable Tribe via WMNF jazz diva Debbie Orlando, who works with Hall's wife at the station. "With one good drink in me," says Hall, "I can handle a crowd."

Though Hall's poetry is highly musical, he is not a musician. "All I play is my mouth," he says, laughing. "I'd really like to play tenor or alto ... I like the piano because it has a lot of intensity. Saxophone for me is like the human voice. The tenor to me is like the man's voice, and the soprano's like a woman's voice."

One song he's a part of, "Horns Have a Way With Words You Can't Hear," is based, musically, on Benny Golson's hard-bop number "Killer Joe," but Hall's verse adds a new dimension. He has a slight lisp, fogging his words as he honors "the tenor sax that blows smoke that does not choke," and name-checks Terence Blanchard, Miles, Monk, Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday, Sade and Eddie Jefferson over muted vocals by Beckwith, a jazz rhythm, and horns that scoot in and out. Although Hall was exposed to Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg during his New York youth, his work is not so much influenced by that canon as he is by Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou and Octavio Paz.

Morewood's poesy is more Beat, Hall thinks: "I like it, contrasted to mine, and I hope he likes mine. I just like diversity." Though Hall is a rabid jazz fan, Morewood is actually a musician himself. "I started playing the piano when I was seven," he says, "and I used to write a lot of music. I stopped writing music — I'm sort of like the Rimbaud of music; I stopped writing when I was 19. I don't know why."

Morewood — who holds a law degree and has studied poetry and philosophy on the graduate level — drops metaphysical science and colorful descriptions in time with the Tribe's musicians. "Translucent Man" starts out with cymbals and soft bass, joined by glistening guitar and percussive dust. Morewood's words are mystical, in awe of the state of life, punctuated by vague turntable scratches: "Did you think it would be a plate of peaches in the summer?/ The innocence of squirrels camouflaged by/ oak gray mural, blue sky/ Did you think your mother would hand you secrets of shamen and physicists/ when each individual gathers different worlds/ is a crystal with its own branches." These words are couched in soft, ambient tones, and the "crystal with its own branches" line is accompanied by glossy guitar touches.

"I think that what I'm doing," says Morewood, "I guess you might call it a crossover thing between poetry and more of a rock-jazz type of thing, so that people who normally don't get into poetry can enjoy it."

Musically, Priest claims that about 75 percent of what the Tribe does is improvised. The poets mostly bring their words prewritten, and either find the words that fit the tune, or inspire the players to create a riff for them. But they ad-lib freely, and the group's few rehearsals thus far have been no more than jam sessions, really, where nothing is ever nailed down too hard.

Since last year's Groovewell inception, the Tribe has played one show at Ybor's King Corona Cigars — a gig that went well, and that they hope to make monthly. The weekend before this issue hits, they will have performed at Skipper's Smokehouse in honor of National Poetry Month.

Even though they're a disparate, off-the-cuff bunch, each Irritable member I spoke with seemed comfortable with the vibe this variety creates. "When I try to explain it to people," says Booth, "it sounds kind of ethereal. But it's worked because we're all on the same wave length."

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