The Billy Collins Project has been a true labor of love for me. It features eleven poems by Billy Collins, America’s most beloved and widely known poet (and its former poet laureate), set to music for voice, sax, piano, bass, and drums. Back in 2002, as my son Maclen was turning ten, his mother showed me the Collins poem “On Turning Ten.” It moved and astonished me with its mix of humor and poignancy, and it perfectly captured the moment when a child first realizes he is not immortal. I remember Maclen, tears in his eyes, reading the poem, and, in a quavering voice, saying “This poem is about me.” It was then that I resolved to one day set “On Turning Ten” to music, and one day in early 2007 I did. At that point I decided I had to do a song cycle of Collins poems, and approached Billy, asking for his permission to do so. His reply was as funny, wry, and on point as his poetry. Others had set his poetry to music before, but it always ended up sounding like the opera singer in The Three Stooges, but since I was jazz, that was different so sure, go ahead. In my reply I assured him there was no Margaret Dumont element in my music, and after hearing a couple of my CDs, he agreed, and I began.
In many ways, the poems gave me the ideal opportunity to draw from all of the musical sources which have shaped me. Since the whole point was to realize Billy’s amazing words as truthfully as I could, letting the story of the poems guide me, I felt comfortable drawing, within the same song, from everything in my quiver—pop, jazz, folk, contemporary classical, blues. I also was thrilled that the musicians and Andy were such great but unaffected musicians, able to make what was really very tricky music seem almost folk and pop-like in approach. I have never been more proud of a project and find it gratifying that everyone from serious jazz aficionados to major poetry buffs to casual devotees or even just lovers of good tuneful songs have all been drawn to and moved by it. As opposed to some regrettable bongos playing behind arrhythmic poets, these are fully songs, sung by a magnificent vocalist and played by some of my favorite musicians.
Andy Kirshner is the vocalist in question, and he truly does have a unique voice, equal parts Johnny Hartman, Michael Franks, pure folk, and blue-eyed soul. I have known Andy for 30 years now (wow!), since we met at the New England Conservatory as freshmen in 1979. He led the life of an experimental composer and perfomance artist in New York City for many years, and is now happily warping young minds as a professor in the Departments of Music and Multimedia at the University of Michigan. His ability to execute what are some truly challenging melodic passages while making them sound effortless as a simple folk tune is amazing. I also appreciate that, unlike other similarly gifted vocalists, who might be tempted to “show off” or embellish, Andy, being a composer himself, subsumes his ego to the project, always putting the melody and lyric first.
In addition to Kirshner, I am joined on this by the brilliant and protean John R. Burr (Maria Muldaur, Alison Browne) on piano and the #1 call Bay Area rhythm team of John Shifflett and Jason Lewis, best known for their work with Taylor Eigsti. They too have put their unique and personal stamp on this, while always playing in the service of the music and the lyric.
I believe this project will draw an entirely new audience to both the Collins poems and his music. It is music that will appeal to jazz lovers, poetry lovers, and simply lovers of good songs alike. Enjoy!