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130: Thelonious Monk, ‘Let’s Call This’ (Monk’s Advice to Lacy)

Posted by jeff on Nov 15, 2018 in Jazz, Song Of the week

©David Redfern

Thelonious Monk, ‘Let’s Call This’

Once upon a time, the word ‘cool’ meant ‘of moderately low temperature’. This week ‘cool’ has been reduced to meaning ‘good’, as in “I’ll meet you at the peanut butter factory at 5.” “Cool.” But in between, especially in the 1950s, it referred to a restrained demeanor, especially pertaining to black males.

In his fine book “Birth of the Cool”, poet Lewis MacAdams quotes emotionologist  Peter Stearns saying that cool symbolizes “our culture’s increased striving for restraint” to better blend into the social fabric, an attitude that “has become an emotional mantle, sheltering the whole personality from embarrassing excess.” Emotionologist, huh? Maybe that’s what I’ll be when I grow up.


‘Cool’ expressed itself in all sorts of unexpected arts in the 1950s–poetry, stand-up comedy, Broadway–but none more prominently than in jazz. ‘Cool jazz’ was actually born from the meeting of Miles Davis and Gil Evans. Miles (b. 1926) was the product of a bourgeois black family; a refined European musical sensibility; and the hot, drug-laden band of the father of modern jazz, Charlie Parker. Gil (b. 1912) was his hip, white mentor, deeply grounded in avant garde theory. Together they made the landmark “Birth of the Cool” recordings in 1948, which we talked about way back in SoTW 35.

But of course it wasn’t so simple. Cool was in the air before, and one of the most remarkable creative artists to inform that spirit was the singular pianist Thelonious Monk (1917-1982). ‘Individualist’ doesn’t even begin to describe Monk. He had pretty much formed his own style in the early 1940s. At the beginning it was only ‘quirky’, but it quickly evolved into ‘weird’. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie tried to bring him into the bebop orbit, but Monk didn’t adhere to the pull of anyone else’s gravity. He played very few notes, and those unpredictable. Metronomes were witnessed imploding in his presence. He pounded the keyboard with extended, flat fingers. He got up in the middle of a song to dance. He wore funny hats. Sometimes he just refused to talk.

Steve Lacy

You talk about a different drummer? This cat inhabited a not-so-parallel universe.

Monk had lots of ups and downs in his career, including years spent in seclusion, forgotten and ignored, as well as periods of incredible productivity. Along the way he left a library of distinctive, inimitable music. He inspired no schools, because no one could figure out his footsteps. But musicians continue to play his hilarious, wacky, totally human music.

He composed and performed some of the best-known standards in the modern jazz songbook: bop classics ‘Straight, No Chaser’ and ‘Blue Monk’ (here from the film “Jazz on a Summer’s Day”), the riveting, elusive ‘Around Midnight’, the heartrending ‘Ruby, My Dear’ (here with Coltrane), and a whole giant oeuvre of fun, funny-whee and funny-huh? gems, such as our SoTW, ‘Let’s Call This’.

First of all, you gotta love the guy’s song titles: Crepuscle with Nellie, Epistrophy, Humph, Pannonica, Trinkle Tinkle.

Secondly, and foremostly, you gotta love the music. It swings, it grins. It completely lacks coherent melody, and you walk around all day humming it. It makes no sense to such an extent that it makes the most perfect of sense.

Thirdly, you gotta dig his aesthetic. We’ll get back to that in a moment.

Waldron, Lacy, Monk (in picture)

Steve Lacy (b. Steven Norman Lackritz, 1934-2004) was obscure enough for nary a non-jazz aficionado to have heard of him, but a fine enough musician to have won a MacArthur genius grant. He was The Man of the soprano saxophone and a committed Monk devotee. He recorded the first album of all-Monk compositions, “Reflections”, in 1958. Then in 1960 he played in Monk’s band for four months. He continued to explore Monk’s music for the next forty years, often in quartet and duo settings with the dynamite pianist Mal Waldron, a collaboration I discussed even wayer back in SoTW 21.

Let’s take a look at the joyous Monk song ‘Well, You Needn’t’ in his own hands (from “Live at the Blackhawk”, San Francisco, 1960).

And then Lacy’s straightforward 1958 treatment from “Reflections” (with a tame Waldron on piano):

And then the song wrenched and wrangled and strangled and dissected and whopped and whoopeed by Lacy and Mal Waldron from that 4-CD I love so much “Live at Dreher, Paris 1981″:

That just shows you what Monk can do to people when they listen to him too much.

Meanwhile, back at the Thelonious. There’s this remarkable document we’d like to share with you. It is purportedly in Monk’s hand, addressed to Lacy, but that is disputed. Perhaps Monk dictated it to Lacy. It may even have been Lacy’s recollection of the Monktalk. Who knows? In any case, the document speaks for itself. You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig? It’s the essence of cool. It’s the most serious of spoofs and/or the most spoofish of sérieux. Feel free to write in and tell us which one is your favorite. I’ll tell you right now which one is my favorite: all of them.

“A genius is the one most like himself,” Monk says. Clearly, Monk was exactly like Monk.

Monk’s Advice (1960)

Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.

Pat your foot and sing the melody in your head, when you play.

Stop playing all those weird notes (that bullshit), play the melody!

Make the drummer sound good.

Discrimination is important.

You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?

ALL REET!

Always know….(MONK)

It must be always night, otherwise they wouldn’t need the lights.

Let’s lift the band stand!!

I want to avoid the hecklers.

Don’t play the piano part, I’m playing that. Don’t listen to me. I’m supposed to be accompanying you!

The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good.

Don’t play everything (or every time); let some things go by. Some music just imagined. What you don’t play can be more important that what you do.

A note can be small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imagination.

Stay in shape! Sometimes a musician waits for a gig, and when it comes, he’s out of shape and can’t make it.

When you’re swinging, swing some more.

(What should we wear tonight? Sharp as possible!)

Always leave them wanting more.

Don’t sound anybody for a gig, just be on the scene. These pieces were written so as to have something to play and get cats interested enough to come to rehearsal.

You’ve got it! If you don’t want to play, tell a joke or dance, but in any case, you got it! (To a drummer who didn’t want to solo)

Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along and do it. A genius is the one most like himself.

They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along and spoil it.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

010: Charles Mingus, ‘Remember Rockefeller at Attica’

032: Duke Ellington, “Take the ‘A’ Train” (Billy Strayhorn)

041: Miles Davis, ‘It Never Entered My Mind’

 

 

 

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021: Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy, ‘Snake Out’

Posted by jeff on Feb 28, 2010 in Jazz, Song Of the week

A serendipitous happenstance, as my mother used to say.

On the one hand, I just returned from a short visit to Paris (hence my absence last week), and was looking for a  French connection Song of The Week, having quite a hard time of it. It says a lot about my lack of appreciation for le scene that I couldn’t think of a single piece more recent than Eric Satie that speaks to me (with the glaring exception of James Taylor’s lovely tune ‘Chanson Française’, which probably doesn’t count).

And on the other hand, I got a lot of flack about SoTW 19, the free jazz bass player playing with Mal Waldron, sounding like chickens being beheaded right there in the studio. And I feel very bad about that, not for the chickens, not even for the bassist, but because I didn’t give Mal Waldron his proper respect.

So, a confluence of interests–I’ve been listening to Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy’s 4-CD “Live at Dreher, Paris 1981” on the hatology label for years now, and every single time, it’s a trip.

I raised the subject of ‘free jazz’ in the previous mailing, and I’d like to try to present a bit of a defense of it here, if you’ll bear with me. I know it’s an uphill fight, because normal people aren’t predisposed to subject themselves to music which is a priori painful to the ears. But really, it’s not that simple.

What are we talking about? It’s music that’s highly improvisational, usually starting from a pre-composed theme and then typically flying off into extreme improvisation. It’s often hard on the ear, aggressive, non-melodic, even atonal.

So what’s the attraction? There are times when ‘nice’ just doesn’t do it. When you feel you need a challenge, something larger and more weighty to wrap your mind around. Not necessarily ponderous or profound or pompous or pompommed (sorry for that last one). Something with grit and gristle.

I’m hoping you’ll have the courage and patience to give our Song of The Week a good listen. It’s 15 minutes long, and it’s definitely not background music for riding an elevator or shopping for groceries or talking to your mother-in-law on the phone. Know what? If you’re not willing to give it a good, serious listen, don’t even turn it on, because it’ll just annoy you. But I do urge you to try it. Learning takes work. I don’t enjoy a lot of what I listen to, but I work at it. What can you do? Listening to music is serious business.

This piece is called ‘Snake Out’, written by Waldron. A song is worth a thousand words, even if it’s 15 minutes long. It needs space to, if you’ll pardon the eponymousness, ‘snake out’. This week’s SoTW does just that. I find it hypnotic, engaging, passionate, dignified. And extremely edifying.

Mal Waldron (piano) has worked in a whole range of styles and contexts. In the 1950s he was house pianist and composer for the Prestige label, played in many dozens of sessions (including Coltrane, and in Mingus’s band), and one session entirely of Thelonious Monk compositions led by the soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy in 1958. In the late 50s he accompanied Billie Holiday on stage and in the boudoir till her death. In 1961 he recorded ‘The Quest’ with Eric Dolphy and Ron Carter, an avant-garde classic. He then emigrated to Europe, suffered a breakdown, returned to record prolifically, mostly on small European labels, often in his very personal, dark, brooding, insistently percussive style. I’ve heard one CD of him playing Brahms and Chopin, and even they sound like good old obsessive, depressive Mal. He met up again with Lacy in the 1970s, and over the years they recorded over half a dozen albums together, sometimes as leaders of a hard-bop/avant-garde group, sometimes with Lacy’s very open jazz ensemble, and several times as a duo, which are some of my favorite music, especially this set. Waldron spent most of his time in Europe till his death in 2002, with some 70 recordings under his name.

Steve Lacy was born Steven Norman Lackritz. Not an auspicious name for an entertainer, huh? But from 1957 till his death in 2004 he also recorded some 70 albums, also mostly for small European labels. He’s been the leading proponent of the soprano sax, an instrument for which I hold a very strong predilection. It has a sweet mournful sound, and seems to cause people playing it to go in that direction, even more than flautists are drawn to the flighty and bouncy, or cellists to the thoughtful and poetic.

Both Waldron and Lacy have a strong personal voice, and play in contexts ranging from the ‘pretty’ to the horrifying (for the unaccustomed ear). I’ve deliberately chosen a piece from the Dreher set which isn’t too easy, melodic, or accessible. But neither, I think, is it impenetrable or painful to the ears. It’s intense, focused, insistent. Both Waldron and Lacy will grab a phrase, work it and rework it, knead it and probe it and dissect it and squeeze it and exhaust it to a point of catharsis. It’s an arduous trip (like mine to Paris), but enriching. Bon voyage.

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