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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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119: Tom Harrell, ‘Train Shuffle’

Posted by jeff on Sep 27, 2018 in Jazz, Song Of the week

Loath as I am to resort to gimmickry in matters as serious as jazz biography, (in contrast to the NY Times profile of jazz pianist Fred Hersch’s recovery from the muscular amnesia he suffered as a result of a two-month HIV-related coma), it’s hard to ignore the back-story of trumpeter Tom Harrell’s mental illness.

Harrell (b. 1946) has suffered from paranoid schizophrenia since the 1960s. He hears voices, maintains (in his words) ‘a tenuous contact with reality’, is heavily medicated, and speaks like a zombie who’s just seen a ghost. Until he puts his horn to his lips, when he’s instantly and magically possessed by an utterly coherent aesthetic expressiveness.  If you want to see how that works on stage, check out this clip.

The bio on Harrell’s official site tastefully avoids mentioning his ‘deficiency’. But neither does he shy away from it in interviews. Well, it’s harder to hide than a hunchback. If you have a morbid fascination with the mental illness, watch him struggle to piece thoughts together, to elicit the words from out of the jumble of his mind in this interview:

Q: Has schizophrenia enabled you to paint a more serene picture musically? Your music is so different from that of all the other jazz trumpeters out there. It’s like your deficiency has been your strength.

A: That’s how I view it. The fact that I can’t always relate to people socially – I’ve spent a lot of time alone ever since the 60s, and that has enabled me to focus more on music, and also the feelings I’ve experienced have given me insights. The feelings that come out when I play, different social themes, it is a blessing… But schizophrenia can be a drag because of the tenuous reality contact thing. But as long as I take the medication I feel alright, because I’m able to do my work.

Riveting as Harrell’s background may be, it is of course the foreground that deserves the spotlight, his wonderful 40-year musical career. He’s worked in a very wide range of formats. As guest/session man/band member, he’s played with Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Dizzie Gillespie, Bill Evans, George Russell, Mel Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Lee Konitz, Sam Jones, Jim Hall, Charlie Haden, Phil Woods, Joe Lovano and Charles McPherson, and especially Phil Woods and Horace Silver. Wow!

He’s recorded close to 30 albums as a leader in a wide variety of formats, as big-band leader, orchestra leader, and especially combos from quartets to nonets. In recent years he’s developed a remarkably stable, tight quintet – with tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, pianist Danny Grissett, drummer Johnathan Blake, and bassist Ugonna Okegwo.

Critics and musicians admire him unanimously. I once asked Billy Hart, a legendary jazz session drummer in jazz for the past 50 years, what it was like to play with him. He became very quiet, and responded in a hushed, reverent voice that playing with Harrell had been one of the most moving experiences for him in his entire career.

Harrell is a most generous leader. As a player, he never hogs the limelight, frequently soloing less than the piano or saxophone. His real forte is as a composer, the polar opposite of a leader playing the guys a riff and saying “Let’s blow.” The music is always controlled, structured, sophisticated, composed (in both senses). His composer’s voice is unmistakably contemporary, a savvy, open-eyed, challenging and restless explorer, but never straying far from his very melodic premise. Here’s a pretty characteristic cut from the 2010 CD “Roman Nights”, ‘Let the Children Play’.  Here’s the very next cut, Harrell at his most serene and romantic, the title cut, ‘Roman Nights’.

But for our Song of The Week, we’re going for a tune that’s captured our hearts and ears for years now, ‘Train Shuffle’. Harrell is never mordant, but this piece is unusually ebullient. Here’s the version from the 1999 big-band album, “Time’s Mirror”.  And here it is from the 1993 sextet album “Upswing” (I guess a loony can be as witty as the next guy), featuring Phil Wood, Joe Lovano and Danilo Perez. It’s a favorite of mine. I revisit it regularly, and it never fails to get me grinning and my foot tapping. Fine, fun, intelligent post-bop jazz at its best. No gimmicks.

For further listening:

Upswing’,  title cut from the 1993 album

Sail Away’,  title cut from the 1989 album

Rapture’, from “Moon Alley” (1985, with Kenny Garrett and Kenny Barron)

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

104: Charles Mingus, ‘Myself When I Am Real’/’Adagio Ma Non Troppo’

094: Brad Mehldau, ‘Martha, My Dear’ (“Live in Marciac”)

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

 

 

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281: Carla Bley with Steve Swallow, ‘Lawns’

Posted by jeff on Apr 27, 2018 in Jazz, Song Of the week

You have two options:

  • You can look at the picture of Carla Bley, say to yourself “Well, she just looks silly”, click Delete and spend the next seven minutes listening to a digital organ play Chinese torture music while you wait on the phone to make an appointment for the orthodontist.
  • You can watch this clip of Carla Bley and her partner Steve Swallow playing her composition ‘Lawns’, and witness as true an expression of love as can be made through music.

I’ve watched this clip of ‘Lawns’ maybe 30 times in the last month. I mean, I really like it.

She’s a character, a dynamo, hilarious and wacky and imposing. But she is first and foremost a singular composer of elusive, intriguing, beautiful songs.

Her partner Steve Swallow eschewed the double bass for an electric bass in the late 1960s, a pioneering move for a progressive jazz musician. It’s true that the bass traditionally and by nature provides support for a lead instrument. And the fact that Carla is such a strong composer (and imposing figure) that she might seem to ‘wear the pants’ (jeez, you can probably get arrested today for using that phrase) in the relationship. But when you actually listen, you see that he more than holds his own. First of all, he’s more of an instrumentalist than Carla. She’s plays a songwriter’s piano. He is a full partner in making the music.

It’s a voyeuristic experience, watching this couple making musical love. It’s not a Hollywood Barbie and Ken Get It On scene. It’s about real humans, serious and mature and wrinkled, and real love.

This is what love at 60 should be. Not screaming and strutting or popping buttons and groaning. It’s the gentle, warm intimacy born of years of two very individual individuals living together, creating a world bigger than the sum of their own selves.

It’s love.

‘Ladies in Mercedes’–from “Duets”

Carla

At 17, in 1955, Carla hitchhiked from California to New York, where she got a job as a cigarette girl in Birdland, a leading jazz venue. At 19 she married dour avant garde Montreal pianist Paul Bley for a while. Then she was married to Austrian avant garde trumpeter Michael Mantler from 1965 to 1991, with whom she pioneered the independent free jazz scene, establishing an artist-owned big band, record label and distribution agency for progressive jazz. And since then, from what I can gather, she’s been with bassist extraordinaire Steve Swallow, with whom she’d been collaborating musically since the late 70s.

She’s also recorded well over 30 albums in a wide variety of contexts–big band, smaller ensembles, and in recent years duets with Swallow and trios with him and saxophonist Andy Sheppard.

I’ve been listening to nothing but Carla for the last month, and I feel that I’m still far from having absorbed the life’s work of this major artist.

Although her reputation is primarily as a composer in the world of free jazz, I’ve found her oeuvre to be surprisingly diverse. And accessible. And fun. And rewarding.

‘Ups & Downs’–from “Duets”

The Route

Kurt Elling — ‘Endless Lawns’

Kurt Elling just released “The Questions”, a typically eclectic, surprising and serious theme album–this time probing “the big questions – What is this life? Does meaning have being? Why is there such suffering and pain? Where is the wellspring of wisdom?”

“We’re two musicians who have dedicated ourselves to a similar task – to be jazz musicians to the greatest extent of our abilities. We pay attention to the real heroes of the music, we play in the style and spirit of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived, and we don’t cut corners. We’re here to play great melodies and express authentic emotion – to be the real deal as much as we can.” [On his second consecutive collaboration with Bradford Marsalis; we discussed in SoTW 261 Elling’s treatment of Sting’s ‘Practical Arrangement’]

Here Carla Bley’s ‘Lawns’ becomes ‘Endless Lawns,’ with Elling’s new lyric interposed with a poem by Sara Teasdale. Thank you Kurt, both for your reading, and for getting me to go back and get past the hair.

‘Lawns’–from “Sextet”

Free Jazz

I was quite aware of Carla before this. First of all as the composer of a cut that’s long been very close to my heart–‘Jesus Maria’:

I listen to a fair amount of free jazz. I’m not opposed to dissonance, grit, or taking a leap of faith to follow a demanding artist. But my feet are placed firmly in the camp of “I’ll give it a 9—it’s got a good melody and you can dance to it,” just like most normal humans.

But here and there, there’s difficult music that grabs me.

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

037: Lee Konitz, ‘Alone Together’ (w. Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau)

178: The Claudia Quintet +1 feat. Kurt Elling, ‘Showtime’ (“What is the Beautiful?”)

In the early 1960s, the trio of Jimmy Giuffre (reeds), Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, made a series of free jazz recordings that speak to me very directly and strongly. Here are two versions of ‘Jesus Maria’ by that trio — from ‘Emphasis‘ (live) and from ‘Fusion‘, both 1961.

And here’s Carla’s own septet version. What can I say? I connect to Giuffre’s trio readings, not to the trombone-based septet. And if I’d stopped listening to Carla at this point, I’d have remained convinced that she’s a composer.

But there’s so much more.

Carla’s Music

As I said, I’ve been listening to her non-stop for a month now, but she’s been recording prolifically for 50 years, and it would be a serious injustice to think that one can fully digest the life’s work of a serious artist in a few weeks.

So I’m going to present you with a pile of music, and cordially invite you to do some exploring on your own.

Throughout much of her career, Carla’s main vehicle has been her big band. Here’s a fine blog posting reviewing that whole period. I’ll bring a few examples from those recordings below, but I’ve been mostly drawn in by her duets with Swallow and trios with him and Sheppard.

 

Here’s her song ‘The Girl Who Cried Champagne’ in three very different versions:

 

Here’s her beautiful ballad ‘Utviklingssang’ (‘Song in development’ in Norwegian)

 

Here are some interpretations of her “Ad Infinitum”:

 

And here are readings by three different artists of her ‘Ida Lupino’ (a hard-headed 1950s actress turned director of socially-conscious films, the first female to break into the Hollywood director Boy’s Club):

And here’s ‘Peau Douce’

Of this entire treasure chest, I keep going back to “Duets”. So I’ll leave you with one last taste of the musical intercourse these two artists share with us, ‘Romantic Notion #3’. Listen to the interplay between them. She puts up the coffee, he goes for the newspaper. After breakfast, they make music. Two distinct and distinctive personalities. Sharing a life. Making joyous music.

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027: Lennie Tristano, ‘Wow’

Posted by jeff on Apr 4, 2018 in Jazz, Song Of the week

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Lennie Tristano. I’m probably not going too far out on a limb if I assume that very few of you have ever heard of him.

Chicago pianist, blind from birth, 1919-1978. Moved to NYC 1946, at the height of the bebop’s popularity. Made a few recordings. Made friends and enemies with his pioneering experiments in overdubbing and tape manipulation. Recorded the very first experiments in free jazz (turn on tape, pay attention, start playing without the safety net of a song, and good luck). He was just a little popular in the early 50s. From 1951 he concentrated on teaching.

He was also an obstreperous, obnoxious opinionated bastard, a dictator of a teacher who inspired both cultish loyalty and great resentment among his former students.

Bebop was Charlie Parker, Bird–frenetic, fast, adventurous, impassioned. He would stagger onstage at gigs, hours late if he appeared at all, drunk and high and dissolute, grab the nearest sax and blow his heart out.

Lennie Tristano was the antithesis to Bird. He demanded rigorous practice, intense concentration and discipline. He insisted that the musician take responsibility for every note he played.

Tristano forced his rhythm section to serve as a metronome, providing a regular, mechanical pulse. Remarkably, such creative musicians as bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach were Tristano supporters. Because on top of that pulse, he would reorganize the bar, displace the metric system, create a disjointed and constantly surprising world. You can count tick-tick-tick without problems, but try one-two-three-four and at some point you’ll find yourself in a world of temporal relativity. It’s a shame Tristano never invited Einstein to sit in on violin. He would have felt very much at home, I think. Well, Aaron Copland was a big fan, if that counts.

The cut we’re presenting this week is called ‘Wow’, from an obscure recording of the same name, from an undocumented date live in New York in 1950. For those of you who can’t take the excitement, here’s a tamer version of the same song in a studio recording from the same period.

Tristano often took popular songs and transmogrified them beyond recognition, mostly for copyright reasons (that way the musicians were also paid as composers). ‘Wow’ is based on the chord progression of ‘You Can Depend on Me,’ an old standard. Here’s a version by Count Basie, and here’s one by beboppers Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt.

Eunmi Shim, in her book on Tristano, has this to say about ‘Wow’: “This intricate melody is linearly constructed and thematically developed through polyrythmic figures and varied phrase lengths, which undermine the modular phrase structure of its model.” Thanks, Eunmi. Couldn’t have said that better myself.

The group here is Tristano’s core sextet, with Billy Bauer on guitar and one-track tape recorder, and an unknown bassist and drummer. The saxophonists here are his regulars, his prize students, two of my very favorite musicians: Lee Konitz on alto sax, Warne Marsh on tenor sax. Marsh remained a loyal devotee of Tristano throughout a commercially mediocre but critically acclaimed career up to 1987, when he died on stage playing ‘Out of Nowhere’. Lee Konitz left the Tristano circle in 1953. He maintained his admiration for his teacher but felt he needed to try new, less stringent waters, although he continued to play and record with Tristano and Marsh intermittently for many years. He is still going incredibly strong at 82, having released close to 40 CDs in the last decade! And I can testify, each one is a new, ballsy experiment. No resting on the laurels for Lee.

If you’re interested, here’s the Lennie Tristano Quintet playing Subconscious-Lee in a pretty rare clip from a 1964 Sunday-morning Christian-content television show exploring the subject of inspiration in jazz. Cool!

So what are we going to hear here in ‘Wow’? It starts with a group statement of the theme. At 0:45 Warne Marsh plays a solo, which at 2:00 he passes to Bauer in mid-phrase. At 3:15 Konitz plays his lovely, oblique, solo. ‘Like a long-legged fly upon the stream’, in W.B. Yeats’ words. And at 4:30 Tristano takes the reins. Ah, the beauty of form. At 7:00 the saxes and guitar return, passing the melody lightly between themselves. At 7:43 a group restatement of the theme. And then, miracle of miracles, listen to the phrase at 8:03 (well, a phrase in Tristano’s language can go on for many, many bars). All 4 lead instruments playing that wild, slippery equation, the alto a third up from the tenor at a speed that defies comprehension, as if that’s the sort of thing that humans are actually capable of doing.

And it all makes sense.

Over the last decade, I’ve spent an awful lot of hours listening to Lennie Tristano and his disciples. I often ask myself why. What is the pleasure in these cool, mathematical abstractions? The best answer is a phrase I wish I’d coined:

Ice also burns.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

SoTW 40: Lennie Tristano Quintet, ‘317 East 32nd’ (Live in Toronto 1952)

SoTWs on Lee Konitz

 

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