Saturday, October 24, 2009

In Walked Thelonious

Jazz pianists often are asked which other piano players are their favorites or the most influential among their forebears, and I'd wager that the most commonly named elders are Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Count Basie, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk, with Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Horace Silver, and Jelly Roll Morton in a second tier, and modern names Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones, even Dave Brubeck and Ahmad Jamal all out of the running.

Acknowledging such influences, it's common for younger players to add a tune or three, written by or associated with one of their idols, to some album project or club set list. I believe that the piano master who has been honored most regularly by entire albums interpreting his compositions--dozens of releases for over 50 years--is Thelonious the Onliest, Monk among ordinary men. Most of his peers mentioned above were masters of interpretation rather than composers (Waller, Tatum, Wilson), and those that did write original tunes were either not very prolific (Powell and Evans, for example) or their compositions were sui generis and not commonly taken up (Brubeck, Jarrett, not to mention largely ignored figures like Tadd Dameron, Randy Weston, and Herbie Nichols). Ellington remains hugely popular, and will be forever and a day, of course, and his tunes played both routinely and rousingly, but they weren't often works for solo piano--mostly not even for small groups--and his own altered stride style has not been all that influential.

I realize I'm making sweeping generalizations here that can certainly be argued (where does Morton fit? how many Ellington tributes?), but I still think that over the last half century Monk has outlasted and out-"performed" the competition. Why? Relatively straightforward numbers like "'Round (about) Midnight" and "Monk's Mood" have entered the playbooks of most Jazz pianists and many small groups, in contrast to his obscurities like "Shuffle Boil" or "Green Chimneys." But even the obscure tunes have their day on some Monk tribute or another (one fan has compiled a list of 60 such albums). And the irregularity, angularity, repetition, broken tempos, scattered notes, strange chords, surprising melodies--whatever one hears or singles out among Monk's keyboard habits--seem magnetically to attract other pianists' fingers. "Shall I prove I can mock Monk effectively, or shall I offer a new interpretation?" That's the choice facing every pianist (or guitarist, or saxman, or vocalist) contemplating one of his compositions, and all options are to be heard somewhere.

I thought it might be interesting to examine, briefly, a few of the better tributes issued over the years. Steve Lacy by himself or with others, for example, has released a half-dozen albums heavy on the Monk, and pianist Jessica Williams at least two CDs. As early as 1957, Riverside put out an anthology record singling out strong versions of favored Thelonious tunes, and in the five decades since there've been memorable releases by artists as diverse as Anthony Braxton and Andy Summers, Mal Waldron and Bill Evans (three tracks on Conversations with Myself, Bill needing to duplicate himself to master Monk?), the Kronos and Sphere foursomes, even standard-bearers Charlie Rouse and Monk's drummer son T.S. I've picked four releases to examine, a mix of the familiar and the possibly less-known.

Blind pianist Marcus Roberts offered an excellent triple tribute with his Novus/RCA CD titled Alone with Three Giants--issued in 1991--the three being composers Morton, Ellington, and Monk, with three tracks by Jelly Roll and six each from the stride-derived, duelling duo. Only a track or two by Morton or the Duke were piano-centered in their original versions, but Monk moodily trinkle-tinkled while Bud walked in, Pannonica sat down, and a misterioso crepuscule descended...

Do the precise titles matter? Everything Thelonious wrote sounds like no other composer was involved; and Roberts does jaunty justice to each tune's eccentricities while also playing more of the piano and less of the bounce than Monk would, more connecting notes and fewer dis-chords. Marcus's keyboard choices are convincing in context--the resulting interpretations lush and lovely--and the carefully chosen order for all three masters' tunes makes for a grand tour of Jazz, but I do still yearn for more of Monk's patented "ugly beauty."

The ghost of Thelonious hovers, maybe literally, over a surprise classic set by Walter Davis, Jr. Monk was his actual mentor and in the mid-Eighties, Davis decided it was time to say thanks. In Walked Thelonious (on Mapleshade) is a stunner, seemingly channeling Monk through 15 tracks kept mostly under three minutes--wham, bam, thank you, Thelonious! Walter apparently believed that he was visited by Monk's spirit during private rehearsals and even in the studio during recording. The photo of Davis placed on the back of the CD booklet looks haunted enough to support such claims--and the music in the grooves shimmers too, with all the right rhythm 'n' blue notes.

From the opening vents of "Green Chimneys" to the slowed second take of "'Round Midnight," Davis is slamming and hammering, drifting and droning, twinkling and tickling, praising and pausing, balking and walking right next to some form of Monk--simultaneously sounding like his mentor and himself. How the two of them make a tuned Steinway chime like a prepared-by-Cage rickitick upright remains a mystery. (Or maybe I should say: as misterioso as some off-minor eremite.) Whatever the case or cause, Davis's tribute is a delight, just one small step removed from the master.

It's no giant leap to the next album, though it is quite out of this world--Carmen Sings Monk on Bluebird/Novus (remastered and expanded to 18 tracks in 2001). McRae and Monk were friends for decades, and she too decided in the late Eighties to tackle a selection of his tunes; that she was also thinking of retiring from performing is definitely not apparent on the career-masterpiece album she cut with the aid of musicians Clifford Jordan, Charlie Rouse, George Mraz, Al Foster, et al, and new lyrics written (and new titles somehow mandated by the copyrights) by Jon Hendricks, Abbey Lincoln, Sally Swisher, and Mike Ferro.

The vocalist's jagged, piercing way with a lyric, sometimes offputting when she sang standards, here became a perfect foil for clever words and angular music--and her way of singing behind the beat a suitable reflection of Monk's skewed attack. Studio or live, scatting or musing, Carmen found the door to open each song. From the very first notes of Mraz's bass plus Carmen's appreciative laugh (opening track "Get It Straight"--i.e., "Straight, No Chaser"), through Rouse's tart sax solo, and back to Carmen for the hip closing, you know that "now is the time" indeed for this Monk-McRae match made in heaven, and down here in Wordland too.

And so it goes through poignant ballads ("Dear Ruby" and "Little Butterfly"/"Pannonica") and happy-feet steppers ("It's Over Now"/"Well, You Needn't" and "Listen to Monk"/"Rhythm-a-Ning"), every track a brave new look at a classic tune, with McRae and Mraz and the saxes providing the bulk of Monkisms (rather than the piano). But I'll mention just two other standouts, both graced with skilled lyric updates by Jon Hendricks. "How I Wish" lets Jordan burn at a low flame and Carmen yearn and yearn more as she tells the story and edges towards the final "How I wish you'd ask me now." And her near seven-minute performance of "'Round Midnight" is purest vocal artistry, with the singer quietly baring her heart as she also bears almost every second of the song (piano only comping beneath)--"There's a brand new day in sight... Let my dreams take flight, 'round 'bout midnight."

So: three albums, each faithful to Thelonious in its own way. Well, the fourth takes off the gloves, grabs hold of Monk's melodies, pokes and prods and stretches them into new skewed shapes. I'm talking about the Bill Holman Band's fiery attack titled Brilliant Corners: The Music of Thelonious Monk (from 1997, on XRCD/JVC). Every track save one on this bright disc rides out beyond five-and-a-half minutes, twisting and turning and finally sliding into some unexpected place.

Where Hall Overton long ago basically just orchestrated Monk's solos (for the Town Hall Concert), Holman launches rockets into the spaces left between notes. Abetted by ever-brash bandsters Bill Perkins, Pete Christlieb, Ron Stout, Lanny Morgan, Andy Martin, Dave Carpenter, and others, Holman shapes new things, mutant Monkachos that churn and scream and make you laugh out loud. You'll recognize every tune at some point but you can also get cheerfully lost in the mad mix of Gil Evans, Kurt Weill, West Coast jive, Fifties Stan Kenton, and Bill Hol(y-Moly-Bat)man himself.

Some tunes stroll straighter than others ("Bemsha Swing" and "Rhythm-a-Ning"), and the ballads are quite beautiful in Holman's arrangements ("Ruby My Dear" and "'Round Midnight"), but other tracks just roll merrily off... the beaten path if not the Holman charts ("Misterioso" and "Friday the 13th"). Then there's that title track, notoriously impossible to play, with Monk's original recording a studio cut-and-paste assemblage. Bill and his boys simply shift at the corners and blow... brilliantly... all the way to Free Jazz.

Still, a grand good time was clearly had by all--as by you too, Mr. Listener, should you choose to accept this mission, imperturbable as Thelonious, shuffle-dancing off. What you may need now, however, after all these fine-but-faux Theloniousnesses, is a pure dose of the originator. In such instances I can wholeheartedly prescribe any of the albums pitting Coltrane against Monk, or the Brilliant Corners remaster, or the purity and joy of Thelonious Alone in San Francisco.

Of course, you are likely to find Monk wholly addictive, in which case there's only one solution. Forget the Columbia albums, as cheery as they are. Save for some future rainy day the historically important Blue Note originals. What any true fan of Modern Jazz needs most is Thelonious Monk: The Complete Riverside Recordings--22 LPs in the original box set, and cheap at any price.


Alan Kurtz said...

You're stretching a point to include Fats Waller among the "masters of interpretation rather than composers." The man who wrote "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now," "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Blue Turning Grey Over You," "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," "Honeysuckle Rose," "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue," "The Joint is Jumpin'" and "Jitterbug Waltz," to cite only his best-known songs, should not be so slighted. And Mr. Dameron's name was Tadd, not Thad; he may be largely ignored, but at the very least he deserves to be mentioned by the correct name.

IWitnessEd said...

Nuts, caught me in another careless typo, corrected to Tadd now. As for Waller, well, he did write brilliantly but so did Powell and Evans and Morton and others above, but he wasn't as prolific or as covered by others (Monk and of course Ellington)... that was my position, right or wrong. Lots of Waller covers in ones and twos, but few tribute albums. A numerical count might settle the issue.

Steven Marks said...

Thoughtful review, but you missed what to my mind may be the best piano tribute, Fred Hersch's Thelonious (Nonesuch). It contains what one expects from the Mr. Hersch, probing arrangements of Monk standards done with an impeccable sense of style and taste. The piece, 5 Views of Misterioso, may be the highlight of album, a 7-minute wonder that, if not the equal of The Goldberg Variations (what is?), still offers a blue print for re-imagining one of the quirkiest melodies in the jazz canon. Great stuff.

IWitnessEd said...

Thanks for the lead; it's one I missed. But I'll get a copy and give Hersch a hearing. I mentioned the list of 60, which has probably grown since compiled a few years ago...

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