Singing for a Poet Offstage


Capathia Jenkins singing settings of Nikki Giovanni’s poems by Louis Rosen (on guitar, right) at Joe’s Pub.

The narrator of Nikki Giovanni’s poem “All I Gotta Do” is a sleepless woman repeating to herself in a voice of mounting frustration that all she has to do is sit and wait until an unnamed something (a lover? a political movement?) comes and sweeps her away. But when will that happen?

Both the poem and Louis Rosen’s sturdy musical setting of it for Capathia Jenkins, who sang it at Joe’s Pub on Monday, seesaw between feelings of determination and impatience as this insomniac muses that the time of her deliverance is beyond her control because she is a woman.

“All I Gotta Do,” which has the drive of a secular spiritual, is one of the most striking of the 17 songs Ms. Jenkins performed with Mr. Rosen at the first of their four performances (through May 26) at the pub. Mr. Rosen mostly played guitar and occasionally sang. He was part of a band that included Kimberly Grigsby on piano, Dave Phillips on bass, Andrew Sterman on flute and saxophone, Rob Moose on violin and guitar, and Erik Charlston on drums and percussion.

Monday’s show heralded the release of Ms. Jenkins and Mr. Rosen’s second album, “One Ounce of Truth” (PS Classics), a collection of songs based on Ms. Giovanni’s verses. The music is notable for its modesty and its care not to impede the conversational rhythms of the poetry. You might describe Mr. Rosen’s uncategorizable, continually shifting musical patchwork of blues, folk, jazz and pop as earthy, tuneful art song. He is from the South Side of Chicago, and the polyglot influences show.

Ms. Jenkins, familiar from Broadway (“Caroline, or Change”) is not a vocal showoff. She dramatizes Ms. Giovanni’s poetry only to the degree that the language calls for it. For the most part, the songs are sly, playful observations that take an off-center, positive view of life and love. “I Wrote a Good Omelet (After Loving You)” is a mischievous celebration of nurturing sex.

Even the more cosmic numbers, like the album’s title song, a meditation on the life cycle, refrain from outright declamation. As Ms. Jenkins sang the words “Remember my smile when I’m gone” in a sweet, sunny voice with an undertone of resolve, a poet in touch with her life force smiled through the music.

Capathia Jenkins and Louis Rosen appear on Sunday, Monday and May 26 at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, at Astor Place, East Village; (212) 967-7555 or

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company