Roy Nathanson has always been fascinated by words. When he was an undergraduate at Columbia in the 1970s, he was studying theater. After dropping out he became immersed in the alternative theater scene in the East Village “when I wasn’t practicing saxophone a zillion hours a week,” he recalls. “I always felt I was a storyteller and I tried to work these things into my music — political issues, issues of identity — always a mixture of text and music.”
The co-founder of the Jazz Passengers, with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, a stalwart of the Radical Jewish Culture circles, Nathanson started writing songs when the Passengers worked with producer Hal Willner in 1994. He also tried his hand at a short story about his father’s long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.
“That became a long story that became a screenplay that finally ended up as a radio script that was produced by NPR,” he explains.
Ironically, it was his day job, teaching, that led Nathanson to explore his second love, poetry. Needing a master’s degree to advance professionally, he ended up in an MFA program in 2006-’07 in which he began writing verse that had no connection to his music.
Inevitably, though, the master sax player would link up his two passions, music and poetry, in his new band Sotto Voce.
Publishing his first book of poetry in 2009, Nathanson created Sotto Voce “to connect spoken word with beatbox, vocal percussion and instruments.” He says, “It’s about exploring an extended idea of what constitutes language.”
This month, Nathanson is taking that exploration in new directions. He is curating two weeks of music-and-poetry performances at The Stone, with such outstanding poetic guests as Gerald Stern, whose many awards include the Wallace Stevens Award and the Ruth Lilly Prize; David Orr, the poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review; and frequent Sotto Voce collaborators Jeff Friedman, Ross Gay and Judith Vollmer.
“At 61 I’ve found that poetry works for me,” Nathanson confides, tongue only half in his cheek, “because I can’t finish sentences.”
Roy Nathanson will be curating music/poetry performances at The Stone (Avenue C and Second St.,  473-0043, www. thestonenyc.com) Sept. 18-30. In addition to Nathanson and both his bands, guests will include Marc Ribot, Marty Ehrlich and Hal Willner.
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