Michael Wolff-Kenny Rankin: Round Midnight

Kenny Rankin, who died this past June at the age of 69, was generally thought of as a pop or soft-rock singer, but he always had a way with standards as well. His 1994 album, Professional Dreamer, proved without a doubt his ability to interpret standards in the manner of a jazz singer. Rankin made a guest appearance on pianist Michael Wolff's 1997 release Portraiture, The Blue Period, singing "Round Midnight." The common denominator for the collaboration seems to be Roy McCurdy, who was the drummer when Wolff played with Cannonball Adderley in the mid-70's and who also performed on Rankin's Professional Dreamer. The bassist on this track, John B. Williams, was in the band that Wolff led in the '80's for "The Arsenio Hall Show," and has been his regular bassist ever since.

Wolff plays the familiar theme unaccompanied prior to Rankin's entrance. The pianist's original voicings show off his keen harmonic sense, and his chord choices, grace notes, and clarion touch make his exploration sound fresh and personal. Rankin's high, supple voice sings the lyrics with a freedom of phrasing and rhythm that is unpredictable but appropriate, and successfully realized. Only when Wolff and Rankin have firmly established their delicately insightful interaction do Williams and McCurdy join in to complement and enhance the duo's artistry. Rankin's pure tonality, varied inflections, interval leaps, and overall questing mindset make this indisputably a jazz vocal rendition. The singer never scats, but he's constantly improvising in ways either subtle or blatant. The surprise ending leaves you hanging, but wanting to hear more.

September 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Four In One

In a way, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey (JFJO) can be compared to NRBQ, each being an eclectic and playful jam band that draws from jazz, rock, and funk, and sports influences ranging from Thelonious Monk to Sun Ra. JFJO was formed in Tulsa, OK, in 1994, and in its new configuration adds "The Tulsa Sound" to its arsenal, as represented by artists such as Bob Wills and Woody Guthrie. At the start of 2009 the group was expanded from a trio to a quartet with the addition of Chris Combs on lap steel guitar, while bassist Matt Hayes replaced original bassist Reed Mathis. (There's never been a Jacob Fred in the group--that was just Haas's nickname in high school.) Combs' guitar helps give JFJO a refreshingly different sound, as heard for the first time on its new self-produced six-track EP, One Day in Brooklyn.

Haas plays Monk's "Four in One" theme liltingly, with subdued theremin-sounding background sighs from Combs' guitar and crisp, unvarnished rhythm support from Hayes and Raymer. Combs in a lyrical solo break takes his lap steel to the island of Hawaii, before Haas returns to moderately embellish the theme. Combs then resumes his improv, continuing to toy with the tune's melodic rather than harmonic structure, and eventually giving way again to Haas's equally thematic ruminations. Haas concludes by playing Monk's line once more in an appealingly light-touched manner. This is an unchallenging yet sonically fascinating take on "Four in One," not unlike the streamlined approach you might expect from Bill Frisell.

August 25, 2009 · 0 comments


Carmen McRae: Suddenly (aka In Walked Bud)

While she was plagued by poor health in her final years, Carmen McRae produced several fine recordings in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Carmen Sings Monk” was one of her best recordings and it included lyricized versions of Thelonious Monk’s compositions (but not his solos). Some of the tunes were included in live and studio versions, and this live version of “In Walked Bud” featured Monk’s tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse in one of his final performances. The words were originally written by Jon Hendricks on short notice for a recording session with Monk. Hendricks describes a mythic jam session with Dizzy Gillespie, Don Byas, Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach, Monk and of course, Bud Powell. McRae’s performance begins as she scats the melody, followed by a full chorus of Hendricks’ words. Rouse takes the first solo, followed by Mraz and Willis, each of whom starts his solo with a quote, Mraz citing the song’s harmonic base (“Blue Skies”) and Willis acknowledging the Basie standard “Topsy”. McRae continues the parade of quotes with a phrase from “Louise” then goes into a short scat solo where she develops a small motive into a longer idea, then takes the end of the long idea and develops it into another phrase. When she goes back to the lyrics, she nearly stretches the song’s syncopations to their breaking point before bringing it back into sync with the band.

August 07, 2009 · 0 comments


Walter Davis, Jr.:Criss Cross

Walter Davis, Jr. had an imposing, physically intense presence about him, not to mention a schooled, totally absorbing bop-based piano style. Few could interpret Bud Powell or Thelonious Monk tunes better than he. He played and recorded with Charlie Parker in the early '50's, befriended both Powell and Monk, and had various stints in the bands of Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey. However, Davis's promising 1959 debut album as leader for Blue Note did not lead to many others under his own name before his death in 1990 at age 57. Davis's tribute CD to Monk, In Walked Thelonious, was recorded in 1987 but was released shortly after his death. It remains one of the crowning achievements of his career.

The pianist claimed that he was visited by Monk's spirit, which offered him advice and encouragement during the process of preparing for and then recording the 14 Monk compositions he played at these sessions. When pianist Dwike Mitchell heard the resulting tapes, he commented, "What's on this tape is not Walter, it's Monk playing through Walter's hands." Be that as it may, Davis created concise, to-the-point versions of these Monk selections, including the trickiest ones like "Criss Cross." He begins "Criss Cross" by bluntly introducing the unorthodox, finger-busting melody. Davis uncannily captures Monk's semi-dissonant sound and whimsical undercurrent, but his tone, dazzling runs, and thumping left-hand accentuations all take on a definite Powell quintessence in his brief solo. By the time Davis is reiterating the theme, one realizes that while Monk and Powell are unmistakably present during this 2½-minute miniature, no one but Davis could quite capture those two pianists' styles so well in one piece and still bring so much of his own soul and personality to the mix.

June 17, 2009 · 0 comments


Bobby Broom: Ask Me Now

I enjoy the cover, with its playful reference to a classic Monk LP. But the music is the real treat here. Bobby Broom has played on some big stages in his career, yet he also knows how to create an intimate sound—imagine a trio of world class musicians strolling into your apartment and playing so under-the-radar that the neighbors on four sides and super don't even get a whiff of what's going down. This is one of those types of performances. The joy here is in the sweet little things: the attack of the comping chords, the sly shaping of the phrases, and the pop of the unexpected notes (the way Monk would've done if he'd plucked the six strings). Broom shows again that he is one of the most musical guitarists of our times, a player who can improvise what he hears and not just what his fingers have learned by rote. There are plenty of Monk tribute CDs on the market, but you should make room in your little red shopping cart for this release.

June 16, 2009 · 2 comments


Denny Zeitlin: 'Round Midnight

For Cathexis, his first of four albums for Columbia, Denny Zeitlin chose the rhythm team of Cecil McBee (b. 1935) and Freddie Waits (1943-1989), two young Detroiters then working with saxophonist Paul Winter. The pair worked well with Zeitlin and conceptually were capable of going in all of the directions the pianist wanted to explore.

This version of Thelonious Monk’s best-known composition ranks among the best interpretations of it. Zeitlin’s already-distinctive voicings and flair for reharmonization serve Monk’s moody piece well, and McBee’s brief solo further enhances it. The gifted pianist Marc Copland alerted me to this recording three decades ago, and it’s lost none of its allure since then.

June 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Joel Harrison: Straight, No Chaser (variations)

Oh man, there's something more than delicious about taking Monk's thing and funking with it. That's just what Joel Harrison has done here. “Straight No Chaser” is run headlong into some serious funk. The result is serious and stuttering fun. I'm a sucker for a good funk riff and there's plenty of that. Harrison kicks things off with some killer rhythm guitar that introduces the main thought: take Monk's riff and pull it into as many related shapes as you can. Some of the solos, especially by violinist Christian Howes and trumpeter Akinmuire, squish Monk's melody so much that it's like a musical funhouse mirror. The 'normal' breakpoints in those well-worn contours just aren't where they used to be. This is a good thing for all parties concerned, Monk himself in particular. Despite his curmudgeonly nature, I'd be willing to bet that he would have loved to hear his music inspiring new artists and being the driving force behind such creative interpretations.

May 21, 2009 · 0 comments


Steve Lacy: Work

A mere three or four years before the recording of Soprano Sax, the teen-aged Steve Lacy had been a Bechet-enthralled Dixieland soprano saxophonist and clarinetist. A subsequent association with Cecil Taylor opened his eyes and ears, and by 1957 he'd ditched the clarinet and was playing soprano full-time in the most modern contexts. This take of "Work" was a precursor of Lacy's eventual preoccupation with Thelonious Monk, an interest that would soon lead to the formation of a group (with trombonist Roswell Rudd) that played only Monk tunes. Lacy is accompanied here by two cohorts from the Taylor band—bassist Buell Niedlinger and drummer Dennis Charles—and a ringer on piano: sideman-to-the-stars Wynton Kelly. The music swings hard, with the rhythm section laying down solid if conventional backing. Lacy is, of course, the wild card, his laconic take on bop harmony and phrasing unlike anything that had been played on the soprano. Only 23 when this was recorded, Lacy's most productive years as a great composer and improviser were ahead of him. As an example of the soprano sax emerging as a legitimate modern jazz vehicle, however, this is an important document.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments


J.J. Johnson: Misterioso

The Trombone Master is a fitting title for a record by J.J. Johnson, who has yet to be succeeded as the indubitable king of post-swing era trombone. It’s also a great starting place for those unfamiliar with his career as it features music from four sessions spanning 1957-1960. Monk’s "Misterioso" is the highlight. After duetting on the melody with Johnson, cornetist Nat Adderley catapults into a brilliant solo packed tightly with blistering double-timed runs and chunky blues licks all laid out with his familial swagger. He’s an Adderley, after all — you know he can most certainly blow the blues.

As implied by the album title, Johnson had his instrument mastered. Possessing a rich, buttery tone and complete technical command in all registers, he never flubbed a note and was astoundingly comfortable on the awkward trombone at all tempos. His immaculate phrasing was arguably his greatest asset, as evidenced in these four meticulously constructed choruses. Johnson’s solo is precise and logical, developing like a short story with each successive phrase building on the previous statement, answering its question, finishing its thought. This is jazz trombone at its finest.

May 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Jessica Williams: Straight, No Chaser

"I seem to be in my Johnny Griffin bag here," Williams wrote of this stunning 13-minute track, "chorus after chorus after chorus, exploring one idea after another." The pianist starts off her solo with frolicking staccato runs after only briefly hinting at the well-known Monk theme, using a resounding left-hand bass figure to provide the momentum until the full trio robustly launches into the melody proper. Williams' marathon solo is a lesson in how not to repeat oneself and still remain fluidly and cogently in control. Captein and Brown provide encouraging and compelling support, and the leader's ongoing interplay with Brown in particular is remarkably intuitive. Williams' inventiveness nearly overwhelms, as she succeeds in reaching successive, diverse peaks of creativity. Brown's ecstatic drum solo, and his following delightful trades with Williams, are prime examples of his polished percussive talent and consummate Max Roach-influenced approach. Williams tosses in an appropriate nod to "Blue Monk" as she draws to a close this wonderful performance by arguably the best trio she's ever led.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Jessica Williams: Bemsha Swing

Those following Williams' career from the '80's to the late '90's were delighted when In the Key of Monk, her long-awaited live-in-concert tribute to Thelonious, was released in 1999. She had always been one of the most original interpreters of Monk's tunes, and, when so inspired, often interspersed elements of his style into performances of unrelated standards and her own compositions. In her liner notes, Williams wrote, "The truth is that a musician playing a Monk tune sounds like Monk because Monk tunes sound like Monk tunes. They're authentic, genuine distillations of Monk's musical point of view, and they inevitably affect the course of improvisation that any musician might take playing them...If you hear Monk in me at times, that's because he's a natural part of my musical make-up now."

"Bemsha Swing" was actually a collaboration between Monk and the usually uncredited Denzil Best. Williams initially plucks out the basic blues-oriented theme on the piano strings, before mixing in some choice key strokes. When she focuses exclusively on the keyboard, she uses a herky-jerky left-handed stride rhythm in conjunction with rapid-fire spiraling arpeggios for an enticing reinvention of Monk's tune. The pianist then refers back to the theme only to jump off into harmonically and rhythmically challenging and provocative contrapuntal dialogues. Williams' ability to create intricately woven opposing yet complementary lines simultaneously in each hand is an endless joy and wonder to hear. She departs as she entered—plucked strings heralding her return to Monk's melody as written.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Peter Bernstein: Work

Peter Bernstein has been one of the most in-demand New York guitarists over the past two decades, although you wouldn't necessarily know it due to his under-the-radar, "musician's musician" reputation. Since Jim Hall discovered him studying at the New School in the early 1990s, Bernstein has played with Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Cobb, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Lee Konitz, and Tom Harrell, and has also flourished as a jazz educator, teaching at the New School, North Texas State University, Julliard, the Berklee College of Music, and the Jazz Conservatory in Amsterdam. And when it has come time for Bernstein to record as a leader, he has assembled only the finest players to accompany him: pianists Brad Mehldau or Larry Goldings, bassists Christian McBride or Larry Grenadier, and drummers Bill Stewart or Greg Hutchinson.

Bernstein's newest collection, an all-Monk, guitar trio date, is a bold mid-career choice. While many albums dedicated to the tunes of a single artist (especially Monk) can turn into an imitation-fest, Bernstein is too good for that – his interpretations are toned-down, soul-infused, and feature cerebral yet reachable improvisations. He sounds best on some of Monk's less-covered tunes, such as "Work," perhaps because there's a bit more room for invention there. On this track he recalls Bill Frisell during his presentation of the melody, a testament to Bernstein's success being that Frisell is perhaps the foremost purveyor of Monk's vocabulary on the guitar. During the improvisation, though, Bernstein is all Bernstein, complete with super-clean octave/chordal work and quick bursts of satisfying linear movement.

March 11, 2009 · 0 comments


Eddie Palmieri: In Walked Bud

It has been rare to hear Eddie Palmieri on record interpreting jazz standards, as he does with Thelonious Monk's "In Walked Bud" (and three others) on Listen Here! One of his trombonists on this track, Conrad Herwig, has released his own fascinating CDs presenting the "Latin Side" of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Wayne Shorter, respectively. Perhaps Palmieri and/or Herwig can devote an entire project to Monk sometime soon, given the successful Latin transformation of "In Walked Bud," a tune based on "Blue Skies" changes, that Monk wrote for his close friend Bud Powell.

An original Latin-rhythm vamp paves the way for Monk's theme, Hernández and Hidalgo helping to give the composition a completely different flavor than usual. Trumpeter Brian Lynch solos first, delivering flowing runs with a crisp yet glowing sound. Donald Harrison's silky alto offers phrasings that take delightfully unexpected twists and turns, followed by Herwig's sure-footed, dancing trombone. All these concise and stimulating solos set the stage for Palmieri's more extended escapade. His infectious percussive attack and montuno ending are all Palmieri, with surprisingly little hint of Monk or Powell. The next bracing call-and-response interlude features exclamatory riffs exchanged by two groupings of horns. Hernández and Hidalgo then eagerly engage one another over Palmieri's persistent montuno. A final exultant refrain from the horns wraps up this totally reimagined Monk opus by Palmieri's brass-heavy working band.

February 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Anthony Braxton: Played Twice

Love him or hate him, Anthony Braxton is definitely one of a kind. When playing his own compositions, Braxton plays by his own rules. It's a game he always wins. When he ventures outside his creative universe—as when addressing this tune by Thelonious Monk—he still wins, simply by making his rules fit a new set of circumstances.

A hardcore bebopper might listen to this track and infer that Braxton doesn't know what he's doing. After all, he plays fast and loose with the changes; "wrong" notes and irregular rhythms abound; uncertainty exists in almost every aspect of his playing. So if Braxton is doing everything wrong, why am I so blown away by this? Because, as the writer Deepak Chopra says, there is wisdom in uncertainty, in not micro- managing every tiny aspect of one's being, but trusting that one will have the resources to deal with a myriad of possibilities instinctively, as they arise. It's the essence of improvisation, and Braxton embodies it.

There are few things more uncertain than what Anthony Braxton might play next over a given set of chord changes, no greater example of a musician creating entirely in the moment. There are no fixed patterns in his improvising, no licks as such—just pure, spontaneous invention, and if it sounds utterly different from anything you might have heard anyone play over this familiar tune before ... well, so what? That's what jazz is about.

December 13, 2008 · 0 comments


Joe Henderson: 'Round Midnight

In the early '70s, Joe Henderson had Monk's most celebrated tune at least semi-regularly in his live rotation, as evidenced by its inclusion in At the Lighthouse, recorded almost a year earlier. This time, however, there's no trumpet player, and Henderson allows himself to stretch more.

And stretch he does. Starting the song unaccompanied, he combines trills with trips to the altissimo register, playing coyly and summoning up Coleman Hawkins. Never in this a cappella performance does he lose track of the melodic line. As the local backing players enter three minutes later, Henderson glides right into the groove. Hino is playing with an ear close to what the leader is doing, and Inaba is rock solid. Ichikawa doesn't shrink from the challenge of following Henderson, bringing much humanness to his electric piano.

Joe Henderson could spin magic no matter what he played, where he played, or with whom he played.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments


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