Binker & Moses: twin peaks

Binker and Moses

The debut long-player, Dem Ones, from young-gun sax and drums duo Binker & Moses, garnered the prodigious pair some serious critical heat. Their forthright improv-heavy, beat-fuelled approach has also resonated with a youthful fanbase currently engaging with jazz. Kevin Le Gendre spoke to the award-wining Londoners and former Tomorrow’s Warriors alumni about their ambitious double-album follow-up, Journey To The Mountain Of Forever, which features cameos from Evan Parker, Byron Wallen and tabla-player Sarathy Korwar

Equipped with eye-catching paraphernalia, from a vinyl-cutting lathe to an all-tube mastering board, the office of Gearbox records in Kings Cross, north London, is vintage to the core, or rather wax cylinder. The fact that Binker & Moses, as in saxophonist Golding and drummer Boyd, have noticed that their 2015 album Dem Ones, one of the label’s most critically acclaimed releases in recent years, has been removed from a shelf graced by the works of legends Michael Garrick and Dexter Gordon simply emphasises the importance of artifact, as in sleeves and the black plastic they contain, in the label’s retro-nouveau raison d'être. It is also a cue for a bout of humour. “See how we’ve been replaced by bigger people,” quips Binker to a hearty chuckle from Moses.” Yeah, one minute you’re up there and the next minute you’re not, literally.”

For two 20-something musicians who are mandatorily called members of the download generation the question of formats in which music is available is an interesting one. Gearbox presciently carved its niche as a vinyl-only imprint before the recent resurgence of the LP, and Binker & Moses both have strong opinions on the cultural currency of an album, a tangible object, as opposed to a file, a digital unit.

“I’m all into hard copy,” says Binker. “Most things that I like I collect in some way. I’ve got small and large collections of CDs, vinyl, VHS, DVDs, dead animals… butterflies in boxes. Anything that I’m into I buy a lot of. I like possessions. The most irritating line that John Lennon ever wrote was ‘imagine no possessions’. It really pissed me off. I like stuff around me, I believe in people owning a physical hard copy of what they pay for. I think it changes the perception of the music. It can’t change the music, but Dark Side Of The Moon is not the same album if you just have it on download. A Love Supreme… it’s just not the same thing without the artwork. So yeah, I judge books by their covers, I even judge albums by their covers sometimes too.”

With a touch of irony, given this lionisation of ‘old media’, we glance at a computer screen to see the artwork of Journey To The Mountain Of Forever and behold a striking depiction of a fantasy world by Jim Burns in which mythical beasts are juxtaposed with illustrations of Golding, Boyd and several new collaborators ‘in character’, as befits a work that has a thought-provoking narrative spread over its lengthy duration.

A double album where one record is a duo session and the second an augmentation of the band to include saxophonist Evan Parker, harpist Tori Handsley, tabla player Sarathy Korwar, trumpeter Byron Wallen and drummer Youssef Dayes, Journey To The Mountain Of Forever is nothing if not ambitious. The music draws a coherent line between composition and improvisation, time and no time, rhythmic ingenuity and freedom of pulse and tonality. Above all the conceptual palette is multi-faceted. The flighty swing of calypso on the first disc is a point of cogent contrast to the earthy ‘sound painting’ on the second.

As graduates of the Tomorrow’s Warriors development school who came to prominence in the millennium and have distinguished themselves in different ways – Golding as an arranger for the Nu Civilization Orchestra and Boyd as the drummer for the trio of another TW alumnus, Peter Edwards – the Londoners embody a progressive slant in British jazz. They are as comfortable in a soulful, blues-based setting with the likes of singer Zara McFarlane, with whom both have played extensively, as they are in a more avant-garde context, and this new set sees them expand both the ideas and timbres presented on their debut.

There was a vague prelude to Journey To The Mountain Of Forever last year insofar as Binker & Moses jammed with tabla player-producer Korwar, whose own 2016 album Day To Day was very well received, but for the most part the gathering of guests on the second record was a high risk strategy as no music was prepared in advance for players who were unfamiliar with each other. Binker & Moses asked their collaborators to pitch up at the studio on the back of a desire to bring to fruition what they’d been hearing during ‘visioning’ periods.

Moses: “We already had a strong idea of the soundworld. Every single one of the collaborators we picked for it. So it wasn’t particularly difficult getting all the people into a room to generate that because they’re all great people and great improvisers. They were comfortable with what we were doing. It wasn’t a stress situation at all; I’ve been in a few of those. We hadn’t played with Evan until he’d turned up, but we learned a lot just having him in the room, and it changed the way I played completely because he has his own language, it brings something else out of you. There is a certain magic in that. Youssef had never played with Tori, who’d never played with Sarathy.

“We never hire somebody or an instrument because it’s a novelty,” says Binker firmly. “Hire it because you need that sound, as that’s where the sound is going. I think some people see the harp as a sort of semi-novelty instrument because there aren’t that many harpists around in jazz and they think that the musician is just gonna play glissando all the time. Well, there’s not one glissando on our record. It’s not about getting an instrument because it’s quirky. We sat down and listened to the voices in our heads and we thought the only instrument that can convey this is the harp. A harp, piano and guitar can all do similar things depending on how they’re played, but the sound we needed was the harp. You hear the music in your head first and then work back from there, rather than saying we want a tabla or we want harp. You might end up with something interesting depending on how skilled the musicians are, but it’s better to do it the other way round. You end up with a richer result. It’s like orchestrating for symphony orchestra or big band; you work backwards. You don’t say I’ve got eight French horns and I’ve got to find something for them to do. Even if they’ve only got one note in 45 minutes I have to work that way round. In the case of Evan Parker it was his sound, what he brings. It wasn’t like we need another saxophone. He’s an instrument in himself. You don’t think Evan Parker on saxophone, you just think Evan Parker.”

The resulting blend of sounds and personalities, or rather the characters as Binker & Moses see them, is refreshingly original. At the core is the saxophone-drums duo, a conjunction whose long line of precedents, from Coltrane-Ali to McLean-Carvin and Murray-El Zabar, is upheld by the sharp interactivity as well as individuality of the two Londoners. Playing together for many years in a variety of different contexts has consolidated the creative chemistry between Binker and Moses, and, as was the case with Dem Ones, Journey To The Mountain Of Forever has some thrilling exchanges between them, whether they are bringing a raw edge to music that is danceable or submerging into a much more serene, abstract, meditative space. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the two-disc set is that the second album featuring the various guests, all the while marking a significant sonic departure, sees no slip of the high standard of performance that defines the first.

Interestingly, something that becomes clear about the duo in interview is the marked difference between their personalities. Moses is genial, Binker forthright, if not intense, and by his own admission he is the one who might call for revisions when they are recording jointly composed material. He might be the one to crease his brow rather than crack a smile. “Of the two of us, I’m the worrier,” says Binker with a steely glance, as Moses beams in the background. “He’s like ‘oh yeah, it’ll be fine. It’ll be fine’, and I’m like ‘no, how do you know?’ I’ll say we need eight bars of this here and we’ll do it; and he’ll be ‘that’s good too’. Moses is like the final editor in a way. I mean we can both just balance things up.”

“I used to be a perfectionist for recording,” adds Moses. “But from just doing it so much – not with this band but with other people – I’m now at that point where it will be what it’ll be. I want it as good as it can be but there are so many factors that can affect a recording that I just accept that the day of a session will be a document of the day. By the time I’ve done a take I know what it is, I don’t need to listen and scrutinise. I know where I’ve missed a cymbal crash, if I can live with that then I will.”

“I tend to get more vexed,” says Binker pointedly. Another spontaneous chuckle breaks out. Those who attended last year’s Parliamentary and Jazz FM award shows will be able to recall the mirth of the duo as they picked up their statuettes, and the general consensus was that they had brought much freshness to the improvised music scene, challenging themselves in a format, the sax-drums duo, that is a demanding prospect for players old and young.

The musical resolve that binds the two is paralleled by what appears to be a deep empathy, and this is highlighted in a brief but nonetheless meaningful exchange triggered by an observation on their garms. Both are dressed casually, in jeans and plain-coloured tops, but Binker’s white t-shirt bears a headturner of a slogan: Reagan Bush ’84. Strangers might take him for a roadrage Republican but the ready cynicism he evinces, a characteristic that is useful in an age of spin, is not to be scoffed at. Moses is keen to debate the point in any case.

“So what’s the t-shirt saying then?”

“It’s about Trump right now. Things are so bad that people are wishing for 1984, which was obviously bad… it’s a sign of where we are.”

“You could have had Obama?”

“It wouldn’t have been enough. Reagan is Babylon-lite compared to what’s going on now. Just goes to show how bad things are.”

“I see what you’re saying.”

“It’s just the Charles Mingus in me.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to the UK's biggest selling jazz magazine, please visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

Christian Scott interview: “Not everyone in America enjoys the same type of freedom”

New Orleans-born trumpeter Christian Scott has emerged over the last decade as a leading figure in the vanguard of younger musicians bringing jazz to a wider audience. Drawing on his black Indian American heritage, Scott now delivers his latest long-player, Ruler Rebel, the first in a trilogy, which fizzes with jazz’s ‘new vernacular’ of piercing melodies, electronica and complex beats. Ahead of his appearance at Love Supreme Jazz Festival this month Stuart Nicholson discovers the deeply emotional roots of Scott’s highly politicised music and why he’s fighting for personal and artistic freedom

Christian Scott brings a bit of bling to jazz. At a fraction over six feet tall, he cuts a striking figure on the bandstand – impressively outlandish gold rings on his fingers, gold necklace, wow-factor sunglasses and with one of his eye-catching Adams trumpets that are revolutionising brass instrument design, he has star quality written all over him. Backed-up by his assured and impressive playing against his band’s avowedly polyrhythmic backdrop that mixes live drumming and drum machines, he’s among a select band of young musicians that include Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington whose appeal is extending beyond the normal jazz constituency. Even that bastion of the popular music press, Rolling Stone magazine, was moved to observe that thanks to these musicians, “popular attention around jazz has just exploded,” to which Scott responded, “I think a big part of it is the characters, and that’s not to say the generation before lacked characters, but I don’t think they were as pointed as ours are, musically. What it’s really about is a willingness by us to build bridges. You can make arguments that what was going on 25 to 35 years ago in this music wasn’t really building bridges, so that’s partly why we are, and why people react so openly and beautifully to our music.”

To get a sense of where Christian Scott’s music is heading, it’s important to understand where he’s come from. Born into a musical family in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans in 1983, he was steeped in the black Indian tradition of New Orleans. The black Indian heritage involves marching in full, feathered regalia on certain high days and holidays while performing a distinct brand of marching songs. His grandfather was uniquely a chief of four tribes, while his uncle, saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. (a former Art Blakey Jazz Messenger who recorded for Columbia and Impulse!) is a ‘big chief’ of the Congo Nation black Indian group and played an important role in mentoring the young trumpeter. And earlier this year, as Scott points out: “I became chief and it was great because it was in New York and we did it as a part of my Stretch Music Festival here in New York, that was a ton of fun.”

 

“You can make arguments that what was going on 25 to 35 years ago in this music wasn’t really building bridges”

 

As gifted academically as he is musically, he graduated top of his high school class at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and armed with a full scholarship, entered Berklee College of Music where he earned two degrees in two years before launching into his career in jazz. Since his Grammy nominated, Edison Award-winning album Rewind That from 2006, he has consistently worked towards creating a personal voice in the music that connects the techniques of jazz to his New Orleans heritage and contemporary elements drawn from popular urban American black culture into an inclusive mix he calls ‘Stretch Music’.

His latest project is Ruler Rebel, the first of a trilogy of albums that celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first jazz recordings from a contemporary perspective. As Scott puts it: “It’s commemorating them in a way where it’s referencing that whole history, but also looks to try and create a new vernacular, new landscapes, a new mode of operating for the next generation of musicians and practitioners of this music. So, its taking a lot of the spaces that had existed before but really going about the business of trying to re-acculturate all of these vernacular elements that had grown out of jazz in the last 100 years back into that context.”

Ruler Rebel places Scott’s trumpet centre-stage, addressing the changing sound of jazz as the ‘swing feeling’ and harmonic complexity of traditional bebop gives way to rhythmically complex groove-based music. “This record deals more with my identity politics, the types of things in music that I enjoy in my leisure time – I like trap music a lot, I enjoy indie rock a lot, so I also wanted to make sure there were points on this record where you could hear the types of things that I gravitate to musically and couple those with traditional elements that have happened in creative improvised music in the last 100 years, but done in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re being brow beaten with all these concepts.” Described as the ‘new vernacular’ of jazz, this inclusive yet rhythmically complex groove-based music that owes as a much to black urban culture as it does jazz rhythms – elements that also surface in the music of Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington – could well become the sound of black American jazz of the future.

 

“Not everyone in America enjoys the same type of freedom”

 

Over the past year, Scott has offered education programmes reaching roughly 500 grade school students and is also planning visits to New York-area colleges where he will deliver lectures and master classes on his Stretch Music approach to improvisation. In 2015 he released a smartphone app for educational purposes in conjunction with the album Stretch Music that allows listeners, musicians and jazz students to get closer to his innovations. “It gives the listener or the practitioner or the student musician the ability to customise their playing experience, their practice, their listening experience through a manipulation of the stem of the recording,” he explains. “As an example: let’s say you play trumpet and you want to play my part and do a solo and do all of these things, well, you can just mute my instrument and take me out and learn my part and learn my solo and just do whatever you want to do over that space… The reception for it has been through the roof, Stretch Music was a number one record in a lot of countries – it did incredibly well as a record – but the app outsold the album maybe five or six times. It’s a very, very good educational tool for young, developing artists.” As soon as the Ruler Rebel trilogy has been released later in the year, apps will be available for each of the three albums, an inspired move to prevent jazz becoming isolated by the onrush of technology as well as redefining the student/teacher relationship for the 21st century.

A consistent theme of Scott’s music is its refusal to be separated from the socio-political context in which it was created. All enduring music has to come from somewhere and have a reason to exist, thus Scott’s music reflects a commitment to confronting social issues through music, something that has fallen out of vogue in most jazz circles. Ruler Rebel is no exception, with its willingness to take on such issues, though this is not immediately clear from the record sleeve. “On Ruler Rebel none of the compositions, in terms of their titles, are pointing towards their political-ness,” he explains. “But that particular record is a more political document, affirming my identity politics and what that means within the context of my life. What’s interesting about my job is that I very rarely tell people what position to take on an issue, right? I feel it’s my job to create a question and for them to re-evaluate how they feel about that issue.”

Some have argued that issues such as police brutality on Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, the post-Katrina devastation of New Orleans on the album Anthem and broader socio-political concerns on Christian a Tunde Adjuah is walking where angels fear to tread. But Scott’s response is unequivocal: “I refuse to let folks stop me from saying what it is I came to say, just because they decide that what I am saying makes them uncomfortable,” he told Rolling Stone magazine. In terms of his music, it brings a powerful emotional edge to his playing, none perhaps more so than ‘K.K.P.D.’ or ‘Ku Klux Police Department’. This stems from an incident in 2008 at 3am while driving home from a gig in his home city of New Orleans. “I live in America, I was born in America, I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana,” Scott begins. “This is not to say that as a space it’s worse than anywhere else in the country, but I grew up in an environment where black bodies can be taken away or exterminated and there is no recourse for the community, historically, to stop that from happening. In America, traditionally, when blacks try and apply the same type of self-determination that other groups are allowed, then it’s sort of presented as a nemesis or an antagonising force in the American experiment.

“So in terms of the ways police officers and the citizenry in this specific community actually relate to each other, it’s a very tumultuous and sort of charged dynamic because you think of the modern context and you say, ‘Well, don’t you live in modern America, isn’t that a free society and don’t you have freedoms and can’t you navigate the world the way that other people can?’ And if I’m being honest about that as a reality, this is inaccurate. Not everyone in America enjoys the same type of freedom.

“And so a composition like ‘K.K.P.D.’ sort of underscores part of the problem with that For me that’s a very specific dynamic, because I was driving home, I was going home that night after doing a gig and a cop car followed my vehicle for several blocks, and eventually turned the sirens on and I moved over, pulled the car to the side. Before I know it there’s a gun drawn to the back of my head and the guy’s telling me to get out of the car and take all of my clothes off and lay on the ground and all these things. I told them I hadn’t done anything wrong and maybe he could explain to me why he was making such a pointed request, and these officers essentially replied by telling me that I was a nigger and that I was supposed to do what I was told, and that they were my bosses.

 

“Before I know it there’s a gun drawn to the back of my head and the guy’s telling me to get out of the car and take all of my clothes off”

 

“I don’t come from a pedigree that’s going to acquiesce to that based on my grandfather’s history and my culture [as an Afro-Indian] and my uncle being chief and me being chief now, we don’t really yield to that type of behaviour. Those type of requests, we obey the law and if I obey the law, the officer needs to obey the law as well. So when they told me that they were my boss and that I was a nigger and all of this stuff I made it very clear to them that the way society works is that I pay my taxes and they are public servants and it means their jobs are subsidised by my tax money and that if I ask them a question that relates to why they were stopping me, then they were going to have to answer said question or I was going to have something to say or do about it.

“Obviously, police officers don’t like being dealt with like that, when they tell you they’re your boss and you turn around and show them that actually you’re their boss, they’re going to have a very pointed reaction to that. But I don’t really have patience for these types of encounters with people where they’re superimposing all these things that I have seen my entire life. Of course, we went tit-for-tat but it was also after a myriad of racial slurs were levelled by them, and their telling me I was an uppity nigger and all of these sort of things. Of course, I had a very pointed reaction to that, and my thing was, ‘If you guys are on a trip where you feel you’re on some good old boy shit from the past and maybe you decide you’re just going to pick a negro and you’re going to have a fun day with him and try and emasculate him then you’ve picked the wrong guy on the wrong day, because none of that is going to happen like that, and whatever this is that you guys are willing to go through to get your point across then I am equally prepared to go that distance and be proud to show you you’re not dealing with a boy, you’re actually dealing with a man’. It was a very pointed moment.

“That’s not an uncommon exchange in America, especially in black America, I don’t know any black males in America that haven’t had their lives threatened by police officers. So when people listen to a composition like ‘Ku Klux Police Department’ then a lot of people are saying, you know, the reaction to that is, a lot of times, ‘Why are you so angry? Why do you make such politically charged music?’ And the interesting thing to me is that it always says a lot to me about the perspective of the person that’s listening to the music when their reaction to hearing that is that we’re angry, or I’m angry – I’m not mad, I just don’t want to be treated that way. I tried to create a composition that accurately depicts the range of emotional states that one goes through when enduring an experience like that, which has nothing to do with me being like ‘an angry black man’.

“This is like something that is really palpable, it’s pervasive it’s something that inundates their culture, the culture of police officers, that essentially can turn them into pack rats that go about the business of doing really terrible things to people because they know that some people don’t have any resources. With a platform like I’ve built, it makes the most of being clear what those realities are actually like for black people in America. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m angry, for me there’s so many layers to the moment that led up to it, there’s such a history and a collective cultural memory that’s associated in a composition like that and enduring a moment like that so obviously for your young musicians and developing people, who are reading this if they don’t come from that reality obviously… I think part of why we have the issue that we have in America today, and why we’re grappling with some of the issues we’re dealing with as a global community, is because people don’t stand up for one another. Everyone is concerned with a problem that relates to their life, but they don’t actually do anything to try and jump into fixing the issues that others from a different walk of life or a different path endure. So you have all of these tribes, all of these groups, trying to get their agenda taken care of, but they’re not looking after the perspectives of their neighbours. It’s so hard to get anything done when the world is fractured in this way.” ■

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Jazzwise.

Christian Scott will be appearing at Southampton's Turner Sims on November 16, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit: turnersims.co.uk

Such Sweet Thunder: inside Duke Ellington's literary world

A crucial but frequently overlooked aspect of Duke Ellington's creative life was his engagement with literature. From Shakespeare to Steinbeck, Ellington's love of the written word inspired much of his late music, as Lana Crowe reveals

Duke Ellington was an artistic polymath, displaying a talent for writing, painting and theatrical production in addition to his abundant musical talent. Much of Ellington’s written work has remained unpublished, perhaps because – as he admitted to Richard O. Boyer during an interview for The New Yorker – “you can say anything you want on the trombone, but you gotta be careful with words”. For this reason, his literary legacy has gone widely unacknowledged, particularly when compared with the abundance of writing on his catalogue of music. Ellington’s interest in literature is, in fact, discernible in both his literature-inspired musical compositions and, indeed, his own writing.

Ellington’s eclectic memoir Music is My Mistress is a rich and insightful text, full of accounts of his extensive time on the road, short poems, descriptions of the many important people in his life, and a variety of other musings that provide a glimpse into his complex and energetic mind. A personal favourite is a chapter entitled ‘The Taste Buds’, in which Ellington (notoriously a man of large appetite) advises the reader on the best places to acquire a variety of food, from Räk Crêpe in Sweden to Poppets in London to baked beans in Harry Carney’s mother’s house. However, it is Ellington’s poetic aspirations that truly enlighten his holistic artistic ability. His most significant surviving poem was written to accompany his pioneering 1943 composition Black, Brown and Beige. Despite the vast critical interest in the avant-garde musical composition, the full poetic text of Black, Brown and Beige remains unpublished, residing only in the Archives Centre of the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C..

Though never published – it gained exposure only through the publication of extracts in Music is My Mistress, and having been adapted into an unsuccessful musical (My People) and an unrealised jazz opera (Boola) – Ellington scrupulously edited and reworked the poem, once going so far as to suggest that “the script itself is more interesting than the music”. The poem undoubtedly deserves to be read as a serious work of African-American modernist literature. It follows the journey of Boola, an African-American Everyman, from freedom in Africa to slavery in America, before culminating in a poetic depiction of contemporary Harlem. The poem is saturated with American literary culture – alluding to the work of Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot, amongst others – and is an enlightening, maybe even crucial, accompaniment to the musical composition, as well as a valuable literary text in its own right.

 

“It is easy to imagine that Shakespeare would have felt an affinity to Ellington’s rejection of generic boundaries”

 

Ellington’s interest in literature extends to a number of musical compositions that were based on literary texts, the most notable being Such Sweet Thunder, a suite entirely inspired by the works of William Shakespeare. Ellington’s ambitious attitude towards jazz has elicited comparisons with Shakespeare: he is a figure in jazz of Shakespearean proportion, and critics have written of his music as having “a truly Shakespearean universality”. The harmony of the Ellington/Strayhorn writing partnership can make it difficult to discern who composed what – “a whodunit game indulged in by the band”, in Strayhorn’s words – much as the ongoing debates about Shakespearean authorship seek to determine the contribution of contemporaries like Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Middleton to Shakespeare’s works. It is easy to imagine that Shakespeare would have felt an affinity to Ellington’s rejection of generic boundaries; the composer considered artistic categories to function like an echo chamber, used “by a person who feels that the one he’s talking to doesn’t know enough about the language in which he speaks”.

Ellington eschewed the boundaries of jazz by using typically classical forms, creating jazz arrangements of classical suites, and referencing classical music in his more conventional jazz compositions just as, 350 years earlier, Shakespeare put deaths in comedies, jokes in tragedies and thrived in the instability of genre that was characteristic in Early Modern theatres. “Somehow,” wrote Ellington, in the programme notes of the 1956 Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival, “I suspect that if Shakespeare were alive today, he might be a jazz fan himself – he’d appreciate the combination of team spirit and informality, of academic knowledge and humour, of all the elements that go into a great jazz performance”.

According to Derek Jewell, Ellington and Strayhorn “read and re-read all the plays as thoroughly as Duke had once gone through the Bible”, research that is discernible in the playful yet complex interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays found in Such Sweet Thunder. Ellington and Strayhorn create distinctive characterisations through, for example, the gradual crescendo of the elegant jazz-waltz ‘Lady Mac’, or the unpredictable phraseology and wincing high-pitch trumpet (courtesy of Cat Anderson) in the Hamlet-inspired ‘Madness in Great Ones’. The title track of the suite, despite quoting A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is in fact an interpretation of Act One Scene Three of Othello, a musical rendition of “the battles, sieges, fortunes” that Othello recounted to Desdemona during their courtship – a tale that, as Ellington often joked, must have been one swinging story.

‘The Star-Crossed Lovers’ is the suite’s Romeo and Juliet-inspired piece: a duet between Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone, who dominates the piece as Juliet, and Paul Gonsalves on tenor as Romeo. It is no coincidence that the opening recalls the first chord of ‘Sophisticated Lady’: the dominance of Juliet’s voice in the piece is a comment on the relationship between the young lovers in the play. Juliet often anticipates Romeo’s dialogue – “Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say ‘Ay’” – and becomes so instructive that Romeo’s behaviour becomes an expression of Juliet’s desires. ‘The Star-Crossed Lovers’ is Romeo and Juliet told from Romeo’s perspective: infatuated with and subjugated to his sophisticated lady. There is even a respect for poetic form evident in the four musical ‘sonnets’, which are made up of fourteen ten-note phrases following the rhythm of iambic pentameter, each with the capacity to be played alongside a spoken Shakespearean sonnet without alteration. An occasion on which the revered Shakespearean actor Richard Burton recited Shakespeare while Ellington “stroked the keys” produced “one of the greatest theatrical experiences that [he] ever had”.

Another significant example of Ellington and Strayhorn’s literature-inspired compositions is Suite Thursday: the suite is a reading of John’s Steinbeck’s novellas Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, which depict life on America’s Pacific coast before and after the Second World War. Though initial reception of Suite Thursday was wanting, it has since garnered critical acclaim for its “evocation of literary mood and character”. It was first issued, in a revised form, alongside Ellington’s arrangement of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite. Perhaps it was the controversy surrounding Ellington’s interpretation of Peer Gynt – the Grieg Foundation barred the arrangement in Norway, a condemnation of jazz and Ellington’s attempt to push its boundaries – that led the artistic ambition of Suite Thursday to fade into obscurity.

Cannery Row opens with a question about literature’s ability to truly capture a place: “how can the poem and the stink and the grating noise – the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream – be set down alive?”. It is unsurprising that Ellington, the master of musical portraiture, read this as a challenge. The suite opens with a foghorn-like trombone phrase, followed by a dreamy piano depiction of the “quiet and magical” life in Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s aural similes, such as how “the evening crept in as delicately as music” are honoured in the suite. It is in the second movement, ‘Schwiphti’, that the orchestra depicts the cacophony of Cannery Row: the brass section squeals as the “cannery whistles scream”, and the up-tempo discord throughout the movement captures the “rumbles and groans and screams and rattles” of pre-war Cannery Row coming to life each morning. Although the suite does not presuppose knowledge of the source material, the literary aspect of the suite enhances both the texture of the music and diversifies the denotation of Steinbeck’s texts.

Duke Ellington moved in literary circles: he was personal friends with writer and social activist Langston Hughes, and publicly praised his political poem ‘I, Too, Sing America’. Through Hughes, Ellington was introduced to a young Ralph Ellison, whose 1952 novel Invisible Man has gone on to become a seminal work of twentieth-century American literature. According to Ellison, Duke Ellington “influenced even those who had no immediate concern with the art of jazz”. This undoubtedly included a large number of poets and novelists: his presence is evident in works from Boris Vian’s surrealist French novel L’Écume des Jours to Geoff Dyer’s imaginative jazz criticism But Beautiful. As a self-declared forerunner in the “increasing interrelationship between the adherents to art forms in various fields”, Duke Ellington understood the importance of one seemingly simple yet sophisticated principle in both music and literature: “when it sounds good, it is good”.

Explore: 'Duke Ellington's finest year'

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John Coltrane: Beyond the Holy Mountain

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of John Coltrane, one of the true musical giants of the 20th century whose monumental legacy casts a considerable shadow across jazz and out into the wider artistic world. With the recent release of his wife Alice’s ashram recordings, The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, and his son Ravi’s ongoing ascent to the upper echelons of contemporary jazz, Kevin Le Gendre examines how the iconic saxophonist’s work continues to influence music, art and spirituality today

Jazz has been marked by notable early deaths. Clifford Brown, Booker Little and Scott LaFaro are among some of the most deeply lamented tragedians, cut down in their prime, before they had reached their thirties, a stage in life often fruitful for those with ideas and talent.

John Coltrane succumbed to liver cancer at the age of 41 in 1967, but by that time he had produced a body of work so rich it secured him a status of prophet pathfinder who embodies certain ideals in the creative act, regardless of whether or not it is allocated the term ‘jazz’. It is not so much that Coltrane’s flame was prematurely extinguished, but more that he, like one of his role models, Charlie Parker, managed to blaze a luminous trail into his truncated time on earth, so that the size of his discography, 45 studio sets (as co-leader and leader) and 11 lives, is matched by its far-reaching influence. That untimely demise has just served to brighten the halo of overachievement around our hero’s head. Above all, the saxophone virtuoso represented inspiration to many others.

 

“Coltrane possessed a rare gift for affecting listeners through an intense focus on sound”

 

Rashied Ali, a member of one of Coltrane’s last bands, said: “When Coltrane died the avant-garde died with him, something died with him, the leader.” Whether or not the sub-genre or school to which the saxophonist putatively belonged was indeed ‘free’ or ‘new music’, or a sound beyond the superficialities of genre, the point was made with conviction, if not deeply held reverence, simply because the term leader suffixed considerably much more than a band in Coltrane’s case.

There was also stewardship in a wider sense, whereby he would be an exemplar, if not figurehead, to whom his peers and successors would look. Which is entirely logical when one considers that, along with Sonny Rollins, he helped to define an integral part of the contemporary vocabulary of his chosen instrument, the saxophone, and that he brought a towering gravitas to his epic concert appearances.

The presence of the Coltrane name in other guises – his late, also influential wife Alice and their saxophonist son Ravi, who is active today on his own musical terms – provides an interesting sub-plot to the central story of the man who opened new musical doors for others.

John Coltrane is undoubtedly a jazz icon of the highest order. Whether or not his leviathan stature as an improviser casts a shadow on his relevance to a world beyond art music is a moot point though. In fact, locating his oeuvre within a single idiomatic space is problematic when one considers the marked difference between the various phases of a career that concludes with the structural abstractions, if not opacity, of 1965’s Om and Expression, but also boasts the intricate, invigorating quicksilver swing of 1959’s Giant Steps, the latticed orchestrations of Africa Brass, and the spellbinding modal praise songs of 1964’s A Love Supreme. There was Coltrane the composer-sound seeker-concept maker who assumed several guises all framed by Coltrane, the driven, all-consuming improviser.

Coltrane possessed a rare gift for affecting listeners through an intense focus on sound, sometimes by nothing other than a single short phrase, so as we consider all of those flights of fancy in which he dissects the finer points of tonality, chord and scale, to the extent that he seemingly destroys and recreates the essence of a song, then it’s worth remembering he could also be at his most compelling when performing an underrated function in jazz: playing a melody. Coltrane’s sensitivity, sincerity and clarity renders ‘Naima’, a love song, in the most engagingly tender way, which makes it as relevant to the canon of pop music as anthems like George Gershwin’s ‘I Loves You Porgy’, Aretha Franklin’s ‘Natural Woman’, and Willie Nelson’s ‘Crazy’. ‘Naima’ features a solo by pianist Wynton Kelly, not Coltrane.

His formative years in Philadelphia and his full maturity in New York afforded experiences rich enough to heighten that kind of editorial wisdom. The gigs with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and George Russell, those preternatural progressives who could hear what others could not, were vital to his development, but of equal note is the music made with alto saxophonist Earl Bostic and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. 1961’s Bags & Trane is a reminder of Coltrane’s worth as an exponent of blues and R&B. At times the set comes tantalisingly close to the work of Ray Charles insofar as it generates the warmth, the goodness, the joyousness, the ‘soul’ of which he was the harbinger.

Furthermore, there was a clear parallel between some of the mechanics of Coltrane’s later work and those of the outré architects of funk, a specific tangent of soul. With James Brown, John Coltrane shared a sonic density, an uncut heaviness, a conception of mountains of sound. Look at the tools and techniques they deployed: doubling of instruments (guitars and voices for JB, basses and reeds for JC, drum kits for both); integration of African percussion; expansion of performance length. Both engaged in a supersizing of groove and emotional intensity. Both probe turbulence, if not violence in timbre. Both take a ‘no compromise’ stance. The points of divergence between Brown and Coltrane should not blind us to those of convergence.

While we see Coltrane’s energy shape early 1970s independent American and European jazz, from ‘deep’ or ‘spiritual’ labels like Strata East and Tribe to players like Frank Lowe and Evan Parker, his permeation of improv-inclined rock bands such as the Grateful Dead and instrumental soul-funk combos is also discernible, even though the danceable sound of these acts appears alien to his own. However, the acknowledgement of his impact is writ large all around. If Clifford Jordan recorded ‘John Coltrane’ then Kool & The Gang penned ‘I Remember John W. Coltrane’.

Members of Kool, in their early guise as the Jazziacs, admired and may well have played with some of Coltrane’s trusted sidemen, Pharoah Sanders and McCoy Tyner in New York, but what is equally important is the path of the pianist who replaced the latter, John’s wife Alice. She took the harp John himself had purchased for her and made it an integral part of work that saw her probe jazz, gospel, blues and Indian musical traditions as she embraced the teachings of a guru, Satchidananda, and became a ‘swamini’, or spiritual leader herself.

Alice’s unwavering faith led her to withdraw from commercial recording altogether in the late 1970s, but that should not deflect attention from her Warner and Impulse! albums. They stand as kith and kin to that of the illustrious spouse who encouraged her. “John not only taught me to explore, but to play thoroughly and completely,” she once said.

As the recently released CD The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda shows she recorded music at her ashram that availed itself of state of the art technology. Her use of synthesisers and electronics, often betraying advanced study of European classical orchestration, imbued her work with striking otherworldly nuances. At times, the hymnal themes conspire to soar right to the heavens.

Taken together, the music of John and Alice thus covers a wide electro-acoustic spectrum. Where the former innovated ‘unplugged’, the latter crafted novel resonances by ‘plugging in’, especially on that reedy, waspish wurlitzer organ. But the common denominator between the two composers was sublime tone poetry. You can call it ambiance, mood, or mantra, but the feeling generated was startling and has reached far into the more discerning end of modern music. Consider the chain: John inspires Alice; Alice finds her voice; Alice becomes a cult; anybody from Radiohead to Laura Veirs hails her great songbook.

Alice is a substantive part of John’s procession because, while her music grew from his to a large degree, it was not bound by it. In both cases there was an immense strength of character that is instructive to anybody who is serious about creating something really new in art. Above all there was a daring. A challenge to the self as well as to others to the extent that the idea of category or boundary between schools becomes irrelevant.

Fittingly, the latin-rock and soul artists who felt the Coltranes’ spirit and channelled it to pastures new were one-offs. Consider these incumbents: Carlos Santana covers John (Love Devotion Surrender) and records with Alice (Illuminations). Stevie Wonder plays John’s music on stage (‘Giant Steps’) and in the studio fashions something that has the unorthodoxy of Alice (The Secret Life Of Plants). Coltrane had disciples, the Coltranes’ gifted musical devotees.

Having said that, the second son Alice bore John, Ravi, has become a force in his own right, having overcome the none too enviable handicap of being the saxophonist son of one of the greatest of all. “I’ve seen a lot of guys hit a Coltrane wall!” said modern day tenor titan David Murray, in reference to the dead end that can await those who take an overly reverential, ultimately imitative road to the legend. John is unavoidable, but, paradoxically, he’s also to be avoided if one is to really do justice to what he stood for. Yet Ravi is not just the child of John. He is the child of Alice too, and draws inspiration from both of his parents, as human beings as well as legendary musicians.

Since his emergence in the mid-1990s, as a sideman to such as Steve Coleman, Billy Childs and Bheki Mseleku, Ravi has developed a very impressive creative voice of his own, and his original writing on albums such as Moving Pictures, From The Round Box and Spirit Fiction is excellent. His recent work in Jack DeJohnette’s trio, exemplified on 2016’s superb CD In Movement, reflects his full artistic maturity.

 

“Coltrane explored dualities: individual voice and collective energy; single mind and plural expression; local culture and universal consciousness; a sound that is ‘in’ and ‘out’”

 

That band is actually a vital entwinement of several historical strands. Alongside Ravi is bassist Matthew Garrison, son of Jimmy, a member of John Coltrane’s classic quartet, and DeJohnette sat in with John and recorded with Ravi’s mother Alice, both in her Impulse! period and on her gorgeous 2007 ‘out of retirement’ set, Translinear Light. In other words, rich chapters of jazz history coalesce in this small group with big ideas, an ensemble of different generations of players who are bound by common cause.

Indeed, the sustained development of DeJohnette, Garrison and Coltrane Jr is proof positive that musicians with a degree of courage can circumnavigate the ‘Coltrane wall’ described by Murray, and that a real handle on Coltrane, conceptually as well as sonically, will enable an artist to paint a portrait of their true self rather than produce a facsimile of another, no matter how well burnished the image.

As Denys Baptiste shows on The Late Trane it is entirely possible to acknowledge the genius of John Coltrane without being overwhelmed by it, precisely because Baptiste thought wisely about the intriguing relationship between art and pop music, reminding us that folk forms were also an essential part of the great innovator’s world view. Seen from the vantage point of the 21st century the idea and meaning of John Coltrane is immensely appealing for reasons of integrity if not idealism, an unstinting pursuit of one’s personal vision that will lead a skilled musician wherever they have to go, even if that means wailing, hollering and moaning in the middle of a concert, as was the case on the mesmerising 1965 Pharoah Sanders-guesting Seattle performance.

Coltrane explored dualities: individual voice and collective energy; single mind and plural expression; local culture and universal consciousness; a sound that is ‘in’ and ‘out’. All of which invites us to think about our ultimate perception of him. He may be a monumental part of jazz heritage, but he also leaves a blues legacy, one that does much more than swing into song forms of 12 bars with pitches bent towards desolation and salvation. Coltrane bequeaths a puzzle on what we really know, from a philosophical, social and political, as well as musical standpoint, of the blues, a phenomenon born of yesterday that still speaks to the mannish boy and motherless child of tomorrow.

 

Photo by of John Coltrane by Chuck Stewart, courtesy of Impulse!

Photo of Alice Coltrane by Sri Hari Moss

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

Thelonious Monk: essential recordings

A completely unique pianist and composer, Thelonious Monk was born 100 years ago, in October 1917. His recordings (both live and in the studio) continue to inspire jazz musicians today, and many of his albums – perhaps most notably Brilliant Corners – remain essential listening. Here's a quick overview of just a few of his finest moments on record, complete with Jazzwise reviews...

 

Monk Brilliant CornersBrilliant Corners

Poll Winners Records | ★★★★★

Thelonious Monk (p), Clark Terry (t) Sonny Rollins (ts), Ernie Henry (as), Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers, Tommy Potter (b), Max Roach and Art Taylor (d). Rec. 1954 and 1956

Today, musicians tackle Monk’s music with apparent ease to where it has now become repertory. But it wasn’t always like that. Back then, it really separated the men from the boys. Brilliant in both title and content this album may well be, but by all accounts it was a bitch to make. The title track being patched together, by producer Orrin Keepnews, from fragments of no less than 25 incomplete takes. But seemingly, the three separate sessions that were needed to actually complete the five original tracks were all fraught with tension and frustration. For instance only four tracks use horns: while Rollins appears on all four, Ernie Henry plays on three while Clark Terry is only heard on ‘Bemsha Swing’. To make up for a shortfall in time, an unaccompanied Monk slipped behind the keyboard to rework ‘I Surrender, Dear.’ Perhaps because this was far from being a conveyor belt blowing session, all the participants had to face up to what became a real challenge when not only getting to grips with the dangerous curves that beset the title track but also ‘Ba-Lue Bolivar BaLues-Are’ and ‘Pannonica’. Whatever the motivation, both Rollins and Henry seldom played better than right here. And the eventual outcome? One of the truly great indispensible albums. Do note, having slipped into the public domain in terms of copyright, versions of Brilliant Corners are mushrooming. The only difference between this release and the official reissue is the addition of three tracks taped two years earlier. Other than that, it has the same sleeve design and sleeve note. Roy Carr

 

 

Monk ColtraneThelonious Monk with John Coltrane

Riverside/OJC Remaster | ★★★★★

Thelonious Monk (p), Ray Copeland (t), Gigi Gryce (as), John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins (ts), Wilbur Ware (b), Art Blakey and Shadow Wilson (d). Rec. 1957

For decades these sessions remained tantalising evidence of what might have been. In 1957, Coltrane was trying to reconcile the world of the junkie with the world of a successful musician in the most high-profile sideman gig in jazz as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet. It wasn’t working out and after a run at the Café Bohemia which ended on 28 April, Davis, exasperated with his sideman’s unpredictability, unceremoniously fired him. Coltrane seized the opportunity of getting his life in order, and during a two-week period in May apparently won the battle against heroin. He had earlier begun to rehearse informally with Monk, and ‘Monk’s Mood’ from 12 April included here was actually recorded while Coltrane was still with Davis. From that point Coltrane began to see more of Monk, rehearsing informally during the summer of that year. The June session with a larger ensemble includes Coleman Hawkins, with whom Monk first recorded with as a sideman in the 1940s and who was an early influence on Coltrane. According to trumpeter Ray Copeland, Coltrane was nodding off during ‘Well You Needn’t’ and Monk called “Coltrane, Coltrane” to indicate his solo turn. Coltrane comes in immediately, surely more ready than Copeland thought. Soon after, possibly 18 July, Coltrane joined Monk’s trio making it a quartet at the Five Spot at 5 Cooper Square in Greenwich Village – a collaboration that has subsequently acquired the stuff of legend – in a residency that lasted for most of 1957. Lewis Porter, Coltrane’s most lucid biographer, reports that most listeners present during this period were overwhelmed, citing quotes by J. J. Johnson and Francois Postif that only add to myths that swirl around this historic moment in jazz history.

Coltrane has always credited Monk for the significant artistic growth he experienced during the latter period of 1957. An indication of where he was headed can be heard on the quartet track ‘Trinkle, Tinkle’ from July 1957, albeit there were many months of nightly magic on the bandstand to pass under the bridge at this stage. During the tenure of the Five Spot gig, Coltrane’s stature as a musician grew visibly with the result that he was in the recording studios an incredible ten times, twice as a leader for Prestige, once for a special session for Blue Note and the rest as a sideman. Yet for all the historic significance of these Riverside recordings, we get is an incomplete picture of Coltrane’s artistic development with Monk and for years jazz historians have yearned for elusive evidence of his final leap into greatness (something that was by no means apparent to contemporaneous observers at the beginning of 1957, including Orrin Keepnews who produced the Monk/Coltrane Riverside dates). Over the decades writers have expressed exasperation that Riverside (who would later record Monk with Johnny Griffin live at the very same Five Spot club) did not document this incredibly important partnership with live recordings.

As if in answer to a maiden’s prayer, in 2005 Larry Apelbaum of the Library of Congress stumbled on a set of previously unknown recording of a Carnegie Hall concert by this group from 29 November 1957. On the nine tracks issued on Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall we finally get an indication of how far the rehabilitated Coltrane had travelled during this time, a snapshot more valuable than even these historic Riverside recordings, but that, as they say, is another story. Stuart Nicholson

 

 

Monk TrioThelonious Monk Trio

Essential Jazz Classics | ★★★★ 

Thelonious Monk (p), Al McKibbon, Nelson Boyd, Gary Mapp, Percy Heath (b) and Art Blakey, Max Roach, Roy Haynes (d). Rec. 23 July 1951-7 July 1958

Monk plays Duke Ellington/The Unique Thelonious Monk

Essential Jazz Classics | ★★★★ 

Thelonious Monk (p), Oscar Pettiford (b) and Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey (d). Rec. 21 July 1955-3 April 1956

There’s some serious stuff on these two reissues, especially the Monk Trio. Mostly consisting of the three relevant Prestige dates, it’s supplemented by two trio tunes from his last Blue Note sessions plus the famous Newport set with Roy Haynes (in reasonably good sound). Apart from five standards, we get Monk tunes such as ‘Trinkle Tinkle’ and ‘Little Rootie Tootie’, nearly all in their debut versions except for ‘Round Midnight’ and ‘Blue Monk’ at Newport. The difference with the Ellington/Unique pairing, comprising his first Riverside albums, is that he was focussing exclusively on standards in often quirky renditions (e.g. ‘Tea For Two’ totally reharmonised with the sequence of Monk’s ‘Skippy’). Brian Priestley

 

 

Monk TriosComplete 1947-56 Trios

Essential Jazz Classics | ★★★★ 

Thelonious Monk (p), Gene Ramey, Al McKibbon. Nelson Boyd, Gary Mapp, Percy Heath, Oscar Pettiford (b) Art Blakey, Max Roach and Kenny Clarke (d). Rec. 24 Oct 1947-3 Apr 1956

The EJC label is well named in this case, although the contents render redundant an earlier CD of Monk’s first two Riverside albums (well almost, since the two solo tracks from them plus the Prestige ‘Just A Gigolo’, are omitted here – because they’re not trios). This is important music and, with the passage of time, it becomes more evident that Monk was essentially a pianist, leaving horn-players the task of replicating his piano rather than writing anything specifically for them. Combining all the non-horn Blue Note and Prestige material (including four standards) with the Riversides makes this invaluable. Brian Priestley

 

 

Monk Round MidnightRound Midnight: Complete Blue Note Singles (1947-1952)

Blue Note | ★★★★

Thelonious Monk (p), Idrees Sulieman, George Taitt, Kenny Dorham (t), Danny Quebec West, Sahib Shihab, Lou Donaldson (as), Billy Smith, Lucky Thompson (ts), Milt Jackson (vib), Gene Ramey, Robert Paige, John Simmons, Al McKibbon, Nelson Boyd (b), Art Blakey, Shadow Wilson, Max Roach (d) and Kenny Hagood (v). Rec. 15 October 1947-30 May 1952

We’re told the jukebox was invented in 1890, but it certainly came of age in Depression-era America, and it not only ‘downloaded’ individual singles but eventually encouraged over-the-counter sales too. Logically then, the programming of the current release follows the order in which the singles appeared, rather than the strict order of recording, so there’s a greater variety of instrumentation than we’re accustomed to track-to-track, with different sessions providing each other’s A and B sides. (Did you know that ‘Round Midnight’ was first backed with ‘Well You Needn’t’, two future standards for the price of one?) Of course, the reissue then cheats by augmenting those 29 singles tracks with the 14 extra takes and three whole new tunes that surfaced in the LP era, so this is as complete as any previous reissue. Oddly, I can see no credits for remastering and, apart from a higher volume level, this sounds the same as earlier Rudy Van Gelder remasters – i.e. very good. You ask about the music? As well as the original versions of classic tunes, we have Monk at his most intense and concentrated so, if you don’t have the material, you need to now. Brian Priestley

 

 

Monk RollinsThelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins Complete Recordings

Essential Jazz Classics | ★★★★

Thelonious Monk (p), Sonny Rollins (ts) with (coll. pers.) Clark Terry (t), J.J. Johnson (tb), Julius Watkins (frhn), Ernie Henry (as), Percy Heath, Tommy Potter, Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers (b) and Willie Jones, Art Taylor, Max Roach, Art Blakey (d) plus (bonus tracks) Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown (t), Bud Powell, Richie Powell, Horace Silver (p), George Morrow (b) and Roy Haynes (d). Rec. 8 August 1949-14 April 1957

This is the real deal, and Essential Jazz Classics is clearly the right label for such an intelligent compilation. Obviously it’s not all quite as brilliant as Brilliant Corners, but that’s here as well as is the entirety of Blue Note’s Sonny Rollins Vol.2 with J.J. Johnson, where Thelonious (splitting the piano work with Horace Silver) appears on ‘Reflections’ and ‘Misterioso’. An even greater service is done by bringing together tracks formerly spread over several OJC albums, namely Monk’s Friday The 13th session (with Rollins and the pioneer french-hornist Julius Watkins) and Rollins’ ‘I Want To Be Happy’ quartet date, where Monk gets relatively little space because Sonny was so energised. There’s a palpable sense of both leading parties stretching and discovering themselves, despite the 13-year age-gap, and these four groups of material are absorbing and irreplaceable. That’s all they wrote together, but even the bonus material is of interest, with the young Rollins on Bud Powell’s version of ‘52nd Street Theme’ and an airshot previously unknown to me of the Roach-Brown-Rollins group playing ‘Round Midnight’. Even those who already have much of this material may be tempted by this collection. Brian Priestley

 

Monk classicThree Classic Albums Plus

Plus Avid Jazz | ★★★★

Thelonious Monk (p) with (coll. pers.) Donald Byrd, Thad Jones (t), Eddie Bert (tb), Robert Northern (frhn), Jay McAllister (tu), Phil Woods (as), Charlie Rouse (ts), Pepper Adams (bs), Oscar Pettiford, Henry Grimes, Sam Jones (b) and Art Blakey, Roy Haynes and Art Taylor (d). Rec. 17 March 1956-2 June 1959

Monk is on superior form in each of these original albums, namely The Unique T.M. (with Pettiford and Blakey), the famous At Town Hall, and 5 By Monk By 5 with a quintet featuring Rouse and Thad Jones. Compared to more routine material from the 1960s, this is a reminder of how energetic and inventive Monk was, when he was just approaching wider public acceptance. In particular, the opening trio album has his reharmonised versions of ‘Tea For Two’ and ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ (the former, though appearing on record for the first time, had already provided the chord-sequence for Monk’s 1952 recording, ‘Skippy’). The ‘big-band’ concert, while undoubtedly an ‘event’, is a mixed bag but a definite highlight is its orchestration of the pianist’s recorded choruses on ‘Little Rootie Tootie’. But the sleeper might be the quintet with Rouse (new in the job and still sounding enthusiastic) and the oblique Jones, using the same rhythm-section as At Town Hall. The ‘plus’ content consists of the 1958 Newport trio set with Grimes and Haynes (as seen in Jazz On A Summer’s Day), complete with announcements by Willis Conover. Fortunately, the reissue audio is presentable, if a bit toppy, while the Newport set sounds far clearer than on a previous CD release (Jazzwise 127) although that makes the slight flutter on the tapes more discernible. Brian Priestley

 

 

Monk ColtraneThelonious Monk/John Coltrane Complete Live At The Five Spot

Phoenix | ★★★★

Thelonious Monk (p), John Coltrane (ts), Ahmed Abdul-Malik/prob.Wilbur Ware (b) and Roy Haynes/prob. Shadow Wilson (d). Rec. July 1957-11 September 1958

Only discovered in the 1980s, this five-track, 44-minute recording first released by Blue Note was done with a table-top mic by Naima (Juanita) Coltrane. Dating not from the famous 1957 residency of Monk’s quartet with Trane, Ware and Wilson, but from a single night when Trane depped for Johnny Griffin, it has less than optimum sound, where the piano is prominent in the mono mix and the saxophone is several feet away. Everything he plays is audible and, when Monk lays out for several choruses at a time, it’s crystal clear how far Coltrane is developing his late-1950s style. Haynes is recognisable (and was paid retrospectively by Blue Note) but his ‘I Mean You’ is a collectors’ item, as the drum solo uncharacteristically speeds up and is cut off abruptly by Monk’s return. The remaining two tracks totalling 11 minutes, claimed as being from the same date and first added by Phoenix stablemate Gambit, have a cleaner balance ‘engineered’ by Nellie Monk, probably near the start of the original quartet’s stint. Either way, provided you get your head around the sound (better than many later Trane bootlegs), this is a fascinating document. Brian Priestley

 

thelonious aloneThelonious Alone in San Francisco

Poll Winners | ★★★★

Thelonious Monk (solo p) plus (four tracks each) Henry Grimes (b) and Roy Haynes (d). Rec. 7 July 1958-21 April 1961

The main album, whose cover-photo of Monk on a local streetcar is reproduced on this public-domain reissue, was done in 1959 at the same time as Riverside’s famous In San Francisco by Cannonball Adderley. Compared to that exciting and populist affair, this is a personal and introspective recital which doesn’t raise the temperature but gets close to the heart of Monk’s style. The breakdown of the contents is already revealing, in that there are no fewer than three blues in B-flat, including a sprightly ‘Blue Monk’, the largely chordal theme of ‘Round Lights’ and the slow-medium ‘Bluehawk’ (whose title hints at the club where the pianist was appearing with Charlie Rouse and a local rhythm-section). Then, alongside three of his own best ballads, Monk addresses four songbook items, two of them familiar standards (‘Everything Happens To Me’, at 5’40” the longest track, and Irving Berlin’s ‘Remember’) plus two obscurities – ‘You Took The Words Right Out Of My Heart’ (memorably revisited 36 years later by the Paul Motian trio) and ‘There’s Danger In Your Eyes, Cherie’, a minor slip in the latter occasioning the only retake. The bonus material is both earlier and later, including four slightly throwaway solos from the 1961 quartet’s European tour, also originally issued on Riverside. The early set is less easily found elsewhere, being Monk’s trio appearance at the 1958 Newport festival, with the bass solo that was cut out for Jazz On A Summer’s Day being restored and with the boat-race comments safely removed. All of this well-recorded programme illustrates the pianist’s thoughtful approach and, even when not always premeditated, his still radical voicings remain idiosyncratic and inimitable. For all his eventually wide and beneficial influence, there was only one Monk. Brian Priestley

 

 

Monk AloneMonk Alone

Columbia/Legacy | ★★★★

A double-CD collecting all Thelonious Monk’s solo-piano work for Columbia between 1962 and 1968, this thoroughly delightful compilation contains not only the whole of one of the great pianist’s bestloved albums, Solo Monk, but also 14 previously unreleased tracks, prompting Orrin Keepnews to insist in his characteristically pithy notes that this is not primarily a reissue album. Monk concentrates mainly on standards, played in his familiar stride-based style, liberally embellished with the clanging dissonance and startling use of space and dynamic and textural variety that set him apart from his contemporaries. Both the predictable standard choices (“Body and Soul”, “These Foolish Things”) and the less well-known (“Just a Gigolo”, “I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams”) - not to mention such self-penned classics as “Round Midnight” and “Ask Me Now” receive typically quirky, intensely thoughtful treatments, and the whole might be intended as an illustration of just what Monk meant by his apparently oxymoronic title “Ugly Beauty”. Indispensable. CP

 

 

Monks DreamMonk’s Dream

Columbia | ★★★★

Monk (p); Charlie Rouse (ts); John Ore (b); Frankie Dunlop (d). Rec. 1862

Monk

Columbia | ★★★★

Monk (p); Charlie Rouse (ts); Larry 6ales (b); Ben Riley (d). Rec. 1964

When the Monk quartet is playing well it usually brings a smile to the listener’s face. As a rough-&-ready yardstick to judge his albums by, it’s not a bad place to start, especially with his Columbia output, generally critically regarded as something of a curate’s egg when compared to his ground-breaking earlier recordings. Perhaps it all depended on Monk’s mood. Certainly for his first Columbia date, Monk's Dream, recorded in late 1962, he was sounding pretty pleased with life, as the ebullient rhythms and jaunty theme statements testify. In this he is aided by the idiosyncratic and highly enjoyable approach of drummer Frankie Dunlop, a man who seemed to have an entirely sympathetic lope to his beat when it came to matching Monk’s rhythmic progress through a performance. On top of that, Rouse sounds more engaged than on many an occasion later on although he still elects to play solos which select material from a very small motivic pool. But one of the nicest things about the date is the superb recording quality delivered by the Columbia engineers. This in itself is a first for Monk, whose experiences at the hands of Blue Note, Prestige and Riverside were more often than not decidedly well below the hi-fi category. That said, Monk brings no new material to Monk’s Dream, preferring re-workings of originals and revisits to favourite old standards. But it brings a smile to the face, so who’s to worry?

Monk, a studio album from 1964 (all but one track from late in the year), has the rhythm section of his last great group in place and is another very happy date. Recording quality is again superb, with Rouse in particular benefiting from a warm and close microphone sound. The repertoire choice on this date is even more conservative than on any of his earlier Columbia dates, with no less than four standards being served up unvarnished, and a children’s song, That Old Man’, being given the Monk treatment and passed off as an original. Of the other two Monk songs, ‘Pannonica’ is a touching re-make, while ‘Teo’ is actually new and is one of the most spirited efforts on the date. Ben Riley, replacing Dunlop on drums, is a more conventional player but swings like mad: you can imagine Thelonious dancing around the studio in response during his frequent absences from the keyboard on this date. Another happy face record: we don’t have to make innovative masterpieces every time we come to the studio, do we? After all, Monk’s art didn’t exactly evolve much after 1949: he just got various great musicians to record with him as time went by as recording budgets expanded.

 

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