A young Chicago jazzman takes on Langston Hughes

Stu Mindeman

Pianist Stu Mindeman poses at the piano Monday, March 17, 2014 in his Chicago home. (Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune / March 17, 2014)

Few poets have captured the feeling of jazz – its rhythms, its cadences, its sense of freedom – more lyrically than Langston Hughes. The music courses through his words, which carry backbeats and melodies as seductive as those in any solo by a great jazz saxophonist.

Which is why jazz musicians long have been drawn to Hughes' writing. The latest is a young Chicago pianist who in the past few years has immersed himself in Hughes' work. So for Stu Mindeman's recording debut, "In Your Waking Eyes," he has convened some of the city's best musicians to perform his original settings of 11 Hughes poems.

That's an ambitious project for any jazz musician and a bold one for a 26-year-old making his first statement on disc. But Mindeman mostly pulls it off, applying Hughes' ineffably expressive words to melodies, syncopations and chord changes that somehow evoke the poet's Harlem Renaissance era but also ours, as well.

None of which would have been possible were it not for the jazz and blues sensibility that pervades so much of Hughes' writing.

"If you just read it out loud, it sounds like a swinging bebop line or a funky R&B melody or a blues melody – that's one of the reasons it translates so well," says Mindeman, who will perform this music Wednesday evening at eta Creative Arts Foundation and April 10 at Constellation.

"Also, he himself spent a lot of time with jazz musicians. I found a great recording of him reading an hour's worth of his own poetry with Charles Mingus' band. … It was really cool to hear him, because he was very animated – huge dynamic contrasts in his reading.

"For him, it wasn't only (about) the imagery and the words and the emotions but also the musicality of the words themselves and the sounds of the syllables. And you could tell from him reading the poems that that was how he thought about it as well."

By choosing to create songs embracing Hughes poems such as "Drum," "Africa," "Song for Billie Holiday" and "Blues at Dawn," Mindeman reminds listeners of the deep cultural pride that radiates from Hughes' poetry. Yet these pieces also underscore one unavoidable fact: Mindeman is viewing Hughes' work as an outsider.

"I'm a Caucasian American, my life experience is inherently different than Langston Hughes' was," Mindeman is quick to acknowledge. "One thing I learned from (him), and it's in his poetry: He has profound faith in his own heritage and a devotion to his heritage, and I wanted to respect that.

"So a lot of the styles that I chose to set the poetry are more modern styles, but it's still in that African-American tradition that's rooted in jazz and blues."

As for the racial difference between Mindeman and Hughes, "I think it's not something to be ignored," Mindeman says. "I don't in any way try to claim any cultural ownership or authority over jazz as a genre or (over) African-American music.

"But I still am really drawn to the emotion in his poetry. And I think that any way that I can bring that to life in a new way is much more a demonstration of my respect to him and to the traditional of jazz and poetry than it is trying to assume authority over some of it."

Musically, the balance between past and present shifts constantly through Mindeman's opus, which sometimes veers a bit too close to light dance beats to feel persuasive. But at their best, Mindeman's songs suggest both historic and present-day sensibilities. The musicians' pulsing rhythms in "Drum" and "Africa," the flowing melody lines of "Sea Calm" and the atmospheric tone of "Kid in the Park" represent serious, deeply felt responses to Hughes' poetry.

Much of the strength of these performances is owed to Chicago singer Sarah Marie Young, who turns in some of the best work of her career on this album. Mostly avoiding the yelling that has marred some of her earlier work, Young this time brings real nuance and subtlety to Hughes' text and Mindeman's melody lines. Though there's no mistaking the influence of Esperanza Spalding here – especially in Young's breathy, nearly whispered phrases – that only helps bring Hughes' world into the present.

Add to this edgy musical commentary from drummer Makaya McCraven, trumpeter Quentin Coaxum and others, and you have an instrumental backdrop that adds to the power of poetry without distracting from it.

But does this often forward-looking music-making, which includes Mindeman's electric piano, really suit the poetry of a man who was born in 1902 and died in 1967?

A case can be made that Hughes would have embraced the ancient-meets-modern aspects of this music.

"Jazz is a great big sea," Hughes wrote in his famous, 1956 essay "Jazz as Communication." "It washes up all kinds of fish and shells and spume and waves with a steady old beat, or off-beat. And Louis (Armstrong) must be getting old if he thinks J.J. (Johnson) and Kai (Winding) – and even Elvis (Presley) – didn't' come out of the same sea he came out of, too."

And though anyone attempting to define what jazz is likely will run into semantic problems, that didn't stop Hughes from trying.

"To me jazz is a montage of a dream deferred," he wrote in the "Jazz as Communication" essay. "A great big dream – yet to come – and always yet – to become ultimately and finally true."

That searching quality pervades Mindeman's "In Your Waking Eyes," which shows a young musician trying to come to terms with the poetry of one of the greatest writers America has produced. It's a formidable challenge, and Mindeman deserves a great deal of credit for taking it on.

Hughes poems, after all, "unlock an entire world or an entire universe and so much more," as Mindeman rightly puts it.

And Mindeman's music illuminates some of the meanings of Hughes' art, both men articulating their thoughts in a thoroughly American language: jazz.

Stu Mindeman and his ensemble, with singer Sarah Marie Young, performs at 7 p.m. Wednesday at eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago Ave.; $10; charlesheathpresents.com. Also at 9:30 p.m. April 10 at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $8; constellation-chicago.com.

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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