Jesse Kramer's "Antinous as Osiris" interprets Roman passion and New York jazz through the lens of a Washtenaw County upbringing

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Jesse Kramer by Jeff Dunn

Jesse Kramer photo by Jeff Dunn.

For roughly half a decade, the Roman emperor Hadrian was in love with a man who was not his spouse. Between 125 CE and 130 CE, the Greek youth Antinous became a favorite of Hadrian, and for the final two years of the latter's life they were side by side touring the Roman empire.

After Antinous' surprise death on the Nile, Hadrian was devastated and, in his grief, proclaimed his lover a deity, In turn, priests connected Antinous to the Egyptian god Osiris, lord of the underworld, afterworld, and rebirth.

Et voilà:

Nearly 2,000 years later we have Antinous as Osiris, the latest album by Ann Arbor jazz drummer Jesse Kramer.

The legend of Antinous' beauty has grown into a literary and artistic touchstone, with classical sculptures based on his perceived likeness, references in the written works of Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo, Rainer Maria Rilke, Aldous Huxley, and Neil Gaiman, and musical explorations such as last year's Hadrian opera by Rufus Wainwright and Kramer's Antinous as Osiris.

The album is partly inspired by the love affair between Hadrian and Antinous as told in Marguerite Yourcenar's 1951 historical novel Mémoires d'Hadrien.

"It's a fabulous book," Kramer said. "It's presented as a long-form letter from Hadrian to his successor, written while Hadrian is on his death bed.  The chapter detailing Hadrian's relationship with Antinous affected me the most, particularly the circumstances surrounding Antinous' death. I was visibly distraught while reading this. Antinous, concerned that his dwindling youth is causing Hadrian to lose interest, steals away in the night and carries out a ritual suicide, drowning himself in the Nile in a manic act of dedication to Hadrian. Hadrian was completely devastated. He had statues built, he established the city of Antinopolis in his honor, he declared Antinous a deity. It's all a fantastic story, but more to the point it humanizes Hadrian, this wise and powerful emperor, in a very profound way."

Two songs on Kramer's record, "Tout L'eté" and the title track, address Hadrian and Antinous' relationship via lyrics of vocalist Sarah D'Angelo. "Tout L'eté" talks about the first spark of summer love between the two men and "Antinous as Osiris" is about Hadrian's recollections about the effects of war and the power of love on his psyche. 

"In 'Tout l'eté,' Hadrian is blissfully unaware of what's about to go down with Antinous. Curiously, the melody, harmony, and rhythm never quite feel settled," Kramer said. "I like that juxtaposition against the serenity and romance of Sarah's lyrics. 'Antinous as Osiris' was inspired by Hadrian's reaction to Antinous' death. In Memoirs of Hadrian, Yourcenar portrays this cycle of emotions that Hadrian experiences, from devastation to guilt, anger, remorse, and even pride, or as Hadrian describes as 'a kind of terrible joy at the thought that that death was a gift.'"

Kramer said he gave D'Angelo a copy of Memoirs of Hadrian and "she did the rest. She sent me the first draft for both songs and my eyes immediately welled up. Beautiful, erotic, tragic. I don't think we changed a word."

Two other tunes on the CD, "Flatter Beers" and "Decca," were inspired by Langston Hughes poems: "Flatted Fifths," which plays with the rhythmic qualities of jazz while also talking about young African-American boys going off to war or joining the Army, and "Be-Bop Boys," a section of the book-length poem "Montage of a Dream Deferred." Kramer used the rhythmic qualities of Hughes' poems, which play with onomatopoeia, to compose his songs, though he never did use flatted fifths on "Flatter Beers."

"For 'Flatter Beers' I was inspired by/stole the syncopated rhythmic cadence of 'Flatted Fifths.' Several lines of Hughes' poem fit perfectly over the melody," Kramer said. "Same for 'Decca.' The syllables from 'Be-Bop Boys' fit over the bass line if you start the poem on the last beat of the line:

Imploring Mecca
to achieve
six discs
with Decca

"The [melody] line from 'Decca' was partially inspired by Islamic chant. It's also a tip of the hat to Gateway trio: John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette. More broadly, I was inspired by the bebop era Hughes was portraying. Bebop was an in-your-face, highly intellectual, virtuosic music -- a direct contradiction to white societal views of black music as low-brow entertainment; not that Bebop's predecessors were low brow, but they were more easily dismissed as such."

Both Hughes poems are short, but they pack complexities in their durations.

"Hughes juxtaposes the racial epithet 'little cullud boys' against the new intellectual music and hipster styles -- the beards, berets, and high-end clothiers Hughes lovingly pokes fun at -- and an exploration into Islam and eastern philosophy," Kramer said. "All of this against the backdrop of post-war America: 'Little cullud boys with fears/ frantic, kick their draftee years/ into flatted fifths and flatter beers.' Hughes paints a potent picture of three sides to identity, which is also represented in Memoirs of Hadrian: how society views us, how we view ourselves, and how war, fear, love, our innate humanity negates all of it."

The album closes with "Stone Farm," which builds on a jazzified country-sounding lick a la Bill Frisell. The song somewhat refers to Hadrian's Wall in Britannia, which he ordered buikt across the width of the island, from the Irish Sea in the east to the North Sea in the west. But the actual stone farm referenced in Kramer's tune is in Washtenaw County.

"When I was a child, my father owned some land in Dexter. In a past life, that property had been farmland but had since become overgrown with trees, grasses, etc. The only evidence of the farm that remained was a few piles of large stones," Kramer said. "Apparently when one farms the land, one inevitably comes across big rocks in the ground, and one laboriously sets them aside in a pile. Hence, my father called it Stone Farm. To me, these stones resembled ancient ruins, Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, Hadrian's Wall perhaps. He built a small shack on the property and would frequently take me and my brother to explore and enjoy nature.  My father is also a folk musician -- in the traditional sense. Some of my earliest musical memories are of him sitting on the bench in front of the shack playing banjo and singing. I think that's where I first developed my ear for music."

The album-closing "Stone Farm" brings Hadrian and Antinous to Michigan, Hughes' New York City to Dexter, and the entirety of Kramer's intensely personal Antinous as Osiris into the foreground.

"I wanted to create a kind of Americana folk feel for this piece," he said. "It's a simple pentatonic melody, that builds and expands. I love the textures and colors that everyone in the band adds. We attempted to evoke the lush, rustic landscape of Stone Farm. I think we got close."

In fact, Kramer and Co. nailed it, with the combination of D'Angelo (vocals), Max Bowen (guitar), Tim Haldeman (saxophone), and Brian Juarez (bass) interpreting the drummer-leader's singable melodies with immense delicacy.

"Most of the melodies [on the album] are very simple," Kramer said, "and I wanted to layer different textures and moods underneath. So, I needed musicians that were sensitive and versatile enough to create those soundscapes. It's a curious collective of musicians, but I think the results are really beautiful."

Just like Antinous.


Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.


Jesse Kramer's CD release party for "Antinous as Osiris" is Saturday, June 15, 8 pm at Kerrytown Concert House, 415 N. Fourth St., Ann Arbor. Visit kerrytownconcerthouse.com for tickets and more info.