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Poetry: It’s What Composer and Multi-Instrumentalist Aaron Irwin Is (after)

photocredit: Aleks Karjaka

Before the comments section, before digital sampling, before AI large language models, there was after.  As seen in titles, it signals the venerable practice of a poet responding or replying to, elaborating on, refuting or outright imitating the work of another poet. And it’s the organizing principle behind the music that multi-instrumentalist Aaron Irwin will bring to BOP STOP Sunday.

Irwin’s Cleveland leader debut is the penultimate stop on an eight-city tour in support of his new Adhyâropa Records release (after), which offers a collection of nine compositions, each in conversation with the work of a different poet.

There’s some history behind the concept. Scholars are almost certain that Homer’s “Iliad” was sung long before it was written down. Yet while Irwin’s recording includes readings of three of the poems, there is no singing—unless you want to include the lyrical contributions of the leader, guitarist Mike Bagetta and drummer Jeff Hirshfield (Bill Campbell is the drummer at Sunday’s concert).

Aaron Irwin Trio (after) Cover

Take the opening track, “Recuerdo (after Edna St. Vincent Millay),” where Bagetta plucks a jaunty major-key vamp over a simple, 16-bar structure, played twice. The texture is spare, but not forbidding, reminiscent of the wide-open explorations of drummer Paul Motian’s celebrated trio with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano. Hirschfield’s drums are whisper soft and Irwin’s alto saxophone tone is pure, almost as guileless as Millay’s memory of a carefree day riding a ferry boat and eating fruit.

“It’s a great poem and it’s beautiful and really well crafted,” Irwin said by phone from Brooklyn. “I’m not saying this to disparage it in any way, but it’s small in scale. It does something subtle and nuanced, but it’s not swinging for the fences, so to speak.”

Aaron Irwin
photocredit: Aleks Karjaka

Those qualities of self-effacing understatement could just as easily describe Irwin’s music, and perhaps his low-key demeanor as well.

Irwin is from Decatur a town smack in the middle of Illinois. Raised in a musical family, and the product of what he called “a very strong public-school jazz band,” Irwin trained at DePaul University and the University of Miami, two notable college music programs. This solid foundation led to work in pit orchestras, both in New York theaters and in touring companies, but when that work and his side projects in jazz and improvised music disappeared in 2020, a budding interest in poetry emerged.

“All these online classes were happening, and I stumbled upon some writing classes and some really great teachers,” Irwin said. One of them, Josh Mehigan, was a catalyst. “Hearing him explain the mechanics of poetry translated so directly to the thought process of creating lines of music that it was really, really inspiring. I wanted to see if I could write music that was in conversation in some way with poems.” So he did, honoring his teacher with “The Hill” after a poem by Mehigan that he recorded on (after).

Irwin is drawn to poets whom he said, “use some of the formal structures of meter and rhyme in an intentional way.” I asked whether this preference for form over formlessness extends to music. But while admitting that in his music, “I want to have more control of what’s going to happen,” he said of free playing, “Some of it I love. I think the people that do it best are people like Lovano. He’s so great at all the things he does, but the people that I think are the best kind of free players are people that are also really skilled at playing inside the sandbox, so to speak.”

Through his pandemic-era writing classes and the writers groups that succeeded them, Irwin was thrown into the poetry sandbox, perhaps somewhat reluctantly. “My desire was just to be more educated, but of course they make you write in poetry classes, which I wasn’t wanting to do, but it’s kind of like an infection,” he admitted. “Once you do it and you kind of succeed a little bit, you want to try it again, [to] see if you can do it a little better.”

Aaron Irwin Trio, Sun., July 7, 7 p.m., BOP STOP at the Music Settlement. 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland, tickets $20 available here

NOTE: This article was written by a real human being. No artificial intelligence or generative language models were used in its creation.

Red beans and ricely yours,