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Pamela Knowles

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PAMELA KNOWLES

Set the words of a Pulitzer-winning poet to strong, lovely jazz melodies, place them in the mouth of a conservatory-trained actress and singer with a handsome, malleable voice--and you could still go wrong. Plenty of similar undertakings, even by artists with similarly exalted credentials, have already failed: when it comes to combining poetry and jazz, getting the right people does not guarantee the right results. So Pamela Knowles, an Australian vocalist and composer virtually unknown in American jazz circles, deserves all the kudos she's received for her delightful self-released 1999 project, Thirteen Kinds of Desire. The poet involved--Princeton professor Yusef Komunyakaa, whose dozen volumes between them have won not just a Pulitzer but a raft of other awards--supplies her with terrific material, from modern mythography ("Satyrs and Dryads") to textured romanticism ("Mirage") and noon-bright truths ("A Grown Woman's Love"); with "Incantation" he gives the album its title ("They say / There are thirteen / Kinds of desire / One's lit by fire / And all the others / Will break your heart"). And Knowles knows just what to do with his poems, tailoring savvy settings for them and singing the hell out of every one--or, more accurately, half singing and half speaking. Vocalists often employ this technique, called Sprechstimme, to conceal their limitations--think of William Shatner in those priceline.com commercials. But Knowles boasts an impressive range, clarion timbre, and excellent intonation; for her, Sprechstimme is just another weapon in an already formidable expressive arsenal. The music runs the gamut suggested by the poems, elegantly simple here, darkly bluesy there. Not since the mid-80s, when a loose-knit bunch of musicians recorded two albums of Ishmael Reed's adventurous verse under the name Conjure, has a poet's work lent itself so well to jazz. Knowles's disc features excellent accompaniment by a quintet of bass, piano, trumpet, percussion, and drums--the same instrumentation she'll use here. This concert is part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Friday, November 9, 7:30 PM, St. James Episcopal Cathedral, 65 E. Huron; 312-494-9509.

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