Blues and Poetry: Tomás Doncker Band Merges Media [Review]

BluesBlues, blues and more blues is the sound of Tomás Doncker’s new project with acclaimed writer Yusef Komunyakaa, Big Apple Blues. The album is much more than meets the eye, however, as the big band blues style of the Tomas Doncker Band meets poetic and inspired lyrics, provided by Komunyakaa to make a project which brings fun and power to the audience with poetic substance just under the surface.

Big Apple Blues is Tomás Doncker Band’s follow-up project to Moanin’ at Midnight: The Howlin’ Wolf Project, a retrospective of one of Doncker’s biggest influences, Chester Arthur Burnett, aka Howlin’ Wolf. Moanin’ at Midnight was just released in July of this year, so the band has been busy since then creating Big Apple Blues which has been pre-released for streaming on the band’s SoundCloud page (listed below). The official release will be on October 21, with a debut event at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey from October 23-26. The band and Yusef Komunyakaa will be on hand to perform, answer questions about the album and expound upon their ideas to bring together blues and poetry in this novel experiment.

Both Komunyakaa and Doncker are heavy-hitters in their respective genres. Tomás Doncker has been in the New York “no wave” scene since the early 1980s, playing guitar with the likes of Bootsy Collins, Yoko Ono, Bonnie Rait and Living Colour, just to name a few. Doncker spent a great deal of time in both East and West Africa as well as China, developing his current sound which he calls “global soul.” Doncker seems to truly be a renaissance man, as he has worked in multiple genres and seems to change up his style as soon as critics and audiences think they have him pegged.

Yusef Komunyakaa, a Pulitzer Prize winner among his many other accolades, is known for pioneering a style of poetry which infuses jazz rhythms into the verse. He creates vivid imagery in his poetry which, at the time he began, was a new and exciting way to approach the medium. The prolific poet is currently a professor in the Creative Arts at New York University and is still publishing poetry collections. He was most recently lauded for his adaptation of The Epic of Gilgamesh, originally published by Weslyan University Press, but which was later put into full production by the Constellation Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.Blues

Looking at performances of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry and knowing Tomás Doncker’s background, it is easy to see how the two may have come together on the Big Apple Blues project. Both artists are heavily involved in blues and jazz culture in New York City, and it is hard to imagine a more suitable poet to lend his lyrics to a big, high-energy sound like that of the Tomás Doncker Band. As he was one of the founding artists of the jazz-infused spoken word genre, Komunyakaa would be able to come up with verses which fit perfectly into the band’s high-energy rhythms and complex blues-jazz fusion melodies. That is just what he’s done on Big Apple Blues, and he has also added more poetic depth and imagery to the project than any blues musician would dare dream.

Komunyakaa was also smart to pick Doncker to work with on this project, as the recent Moanin’ at Midnight: The Howlin’ Wolf Project received numerous accolades from CNN and Guitar World Magazine, as well as Howlin’ Wolf’s official website, which posted the album in its entirety. If Komunyakaa was looking for a collaborator who would understand the jazz nuances and timing in his verse, he would need look no further than Tomás Doncker.

The speed with which Big Apple Blues has been put together is astounding, given the album’s complexity and depth. It includes a full horn section as well as Doncker’s guitar and the way the songs have been composed suggests months of work. The title track, for example, begins with a huge polyphonic crescendo, something most jazz audiences would expect toward the end of a song, and then slowly builds toward another in the middle. Yusef Komunyakaa’s lyrics really shine in tracks like The New Day, in which his verse discusses the freedom and hope in civil discourse and challenging systems to bring on a new way of thinking. Big Apple Blues is no doubt destined to win even more prizes both musically and from the poetry community.

Both the music and the poetry world are eagerly awaiting the official release of Tomás Donker Band’s Big Apple Blues on October 21 via True Groove Records and the performance at the Dodge Festival. There fans can see the band perform some of Yusef Komunyakaa’s finest poetry, as these two legends of poetry and music come together, merging media in a new and novel way while paying homage to each others’ craft. In the meantime, fans can stream the album on SoundCloud and appreciate this wonderfully special work from both a poetic and a musical angle.

Review by Layla Klamt

SoundCloud (Tomas Doncker Band)
Interview, Tomas Doncker (provided by Independent Music Promotions)

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