John Coltrane & Don Cherry: Bemsha Swing

John Coltrane never cared much for what other people thought. He must have had doubts, at least occasionally—he was human, after all—but ultimately he let his instinct for exploration guide him. A prime example is The Avant-Garde, where he joined forces with several of Ornette Coleman's sidemen at a time when Coltrane was the most influential musician in jazz and they were insurgent up-and-comers. Whereas most of the album consisted of interpretations of Coleman tunes (and one by co-leader Don Cherry), the band took a stab at a prior era's avant-garde with the recording of Monk's "Bemsha Swing." Monk's melody is not technically demanding, yet the empathy shared by Coltrane and Cherry in playing the unison theme is still notable. They phrase and blend like a single instrument.

Cherry's biggest fault as a player was the ever-present "splat" that characterized his attack and sound in general when he used an open horn. That's a factor here, yet it fades in significance next to his gift for unfettered melodic invention. Cherry was the ideal companion for Coleman, in that he served as a natural bridge between Ornette's downhome concept and mainstream bop. Cherry's skill at reconciling related if contrasting approaches is put to good use here, as he plays totally free while maintaining the integrity of Monk's construct.

In contrast, Trane seems tentative, perhaps because his natural inclination is to deal with the chords more directly. After Cherry's comparatively free improvisation, Coltrane's method of navigating the changes—ingenious though it may be—sounds nearly archaic. As a result, the track isn't the complete success one might expect. That said, the very existence of this recorded meeting between the avant-garde's greatest trumpeter and its premier tenor saxophonist is something to be treasured.

November 17, 2008 · 0 comments


Mort Weiss: Blue Monk

Now this is a match made in jazz heaven. Ron Eschete shows off his guitar mastery while Mort Weiss swoops his way through the swingin' chord solos. With the expanded sonic palette of the 7-string guitar, it almost seems like there are more than two musicians playing. What's great about this particular format is that it pretty much requires the musicians to assume nontraditional roles. It's that stretch of responsibilities that produces some great and unexpected results.

October 27, 2008 · 0 comments


Sonny Fortune: Hornin' In

Sonny Fortune considered Four in One to be "my first traditionally oriented jazz album." Outside of several of Monk's best known tunes, Fortune was not really familiar with Monk's body of work until several years prior to this project. Like Coltrane before him, Fortune adapted his individual style to the unique logic and idiosyncrasies of Monk's compositions, and revealed – to listeners and perhaps even to himself – an aspect of his musical personality that was fresh and surprising.

In checking Monk's discography, it appears that "Hornin' In" was recorded by him just once, in 1952, with a sextet that included Kenny Dorham, Lou Donaldson, Lucky Thompson and Max Roach. Hart's resounding Roach-like intro jump-starts Fortune's and Lightsey's unison rendition of the carefree, skittering theme, with its typically distinctive and complementary bridge. At first in his extended alto solo, Fortune sounds and phrases like Charlie Rouse, but gradually Sonny's unmistakable rhythmic flair, zestful post-bop flourishes, and other original stylistic quirks make the piece his own as he commandingly negotiates the stimulating chord progressions. Note Hart's brilliant drum work throughout, as well as Lightsey's perfectly attuned Monk-centric comping. Williams, as usual, can hardly be heard, even with Rudy Van Gelder at the controls. This is a take-no-prisoners version of a relatively obscure Monk tune that deserves to be played more often.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Oz Noy: Blue Monk

Jazz purists may cringe at the rock overtones, but the Hendrix influence cannot be ignored here. As with nearly all of Jimi's own recordings, this track is an improvisational showcase for long strings of notes played on Fender guitar and topped with heavy stereo effects and gain. While none of these details sounds particularly surprising on the surface, Noy has created a standalone version of the classic Monk tune that pays enough homage to the original composition that it can still be considered a cover. The divergent synthesis provides fusion credibility, and the recording works on this level.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Larry Young (featuring Elvin Jones): Monk's Dream

The complexities of Elvin Jones's drumming style are superbly communicated throughout "Monk's Dream." He is playing many of his rapid-fire polyrhythmic runs and multilayered comping ideas honed in John Coltrane's group, yet both tempo and energy are more relaxed on this grooving Monk composition. Therefore, while it's easy for Jones's phenomenal ideas to whiz right by your ears (and brain!) throughout the intensity that was the Coltrane Quartet, many of the same ideas are presented more clearly, but no less impressively, on this second Larry Young record. On a completely different level, it's also pleasing to hear Elvin lay back and play a simple groove with an organist, his deep pocket but light touch creating a perfect foundation for Young's layering.

August 03, 2008 · 0 comments


Steve Lacy (featuring Elvin Jones): Four in One

After a Roy Haynes/Max Roach-influenced drum break to open "Four in One," Elvin Jones declares his singular presence with his multi-layered approach of building broken-triplets (with his snare and bass drums) on top of his complete cymbal/hi-hat pattern (00:07). Elvin (and his many talented disciples) play this pattern so often that it's easy to forget how much skill it requires. Note the brief yet revealing polyrhythmic fill that giftedly turns the beat around at the conclusion of Lacy's improvisation (2:20-2:23). This is just a glimpse of the heightened focus on polyrhythm that would increasingly define Jones's playing. Also note Elvin's energetic, "try-to-find-beat-one!" fills during the fours section at the tune's conclusion.

August 02, 2008 · 0 comments


Paul Motian: Light Blue

It's hard to make a song like Monk's "Light Blue," with its short repeated melody, sound right. By the way, who does play it on record or onstage nowadays? But this is not a problem for Paul Motian. With his atypical trio, he can imprint his personal mark on almost any type of song he chooses, since they will never play it in the usual way. Here, the trio repeats the melody six times with only slight changes before it starts improvising in a "theme-and-variation" kind of way, with Lovano and Frisell taking turns as lead voice, then accompanist, or going back to the melody in unison. Motian's light cymbal touch works as a rhythmic and melodic counterpoint to his partners' playing, and the whole illustrates beautifully one of the veteran drummer's great principles about music (which could also have been Monk's motto): less is more.

July 24, 2008 · 0 comments


Adrián Iaies & Michael Zisman: 'Round Midnight

The keyboard-based accordion has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, but we still hardly ever see its cousin, the bandoneón, on jazz CDs. What a shame. The latter instrument, associated with tango music, has the right personality for jazz. Even at its most romantic, the bandoneón possesses an acerbic, ironic attitude lurking just below the surface, and this tension between warmth and distance has long been a productive formula for great jazz. Michael Zisman is a young master of the instrument, having taken first place in the bandoneón category at last year's international accordion competition. Zisman joins Adrián Iaies here, and completely transforms "'Round Midnight" from the moment he enters. The interaction between the two players captures the perfect balance between jazz and tango sensibilities. Iaies's solo piano intro takes on a moody cast, but Zisman makes this midnight setting seem positively dangerous. Someone might be lurking around the corner with a knife, and the couple strolling toward you may be lovers or thieves, who can tell? In an ocean of Monkfish covers, this one is a real catch, standing out for its fresh take on a familiar standard.

July 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Carmen McRae: Still We Dream

Ralph J. Gleason once wrote of McRae that "Carmen occupies a place in the hearts of jazz musicians that is a very special place...." He quoted Miles Davis, who, upon seeing a billboard crowning Ella Fitzgerald as The Queen of Jazz, "grunted and then growled 'If Ella Fitzgerald is The Queen of Jazz, what the fuck is Carmen?'" McRae's sophisticated approach to singing had more than a little basis in her schooling as a pianist; one of her own piano accompanists, Norman Simmons, said that her soloing style on the keyboard was like Thelonious Monk's. Her idea to sing lyrics set to Monk tunes was a natural, her edgy, laid-back and world-wise voice a perfect complement to Monk's own unique voicings.

Of the 13 Monk tunes on the recording, Mike Ferro's lyrics to "Ugly Beauty" and McRae's interpretation of them are among the standouts. (The intricacies of music publishing necessitated that each newly lyricized Monk composition be given a new title.) "Still We Dream" deals with the end of a love affair and the resulting regret and resignation. Carmen sings it as if bravely trying to hold back the tears and emotion, while also honoring every odd interval and note of Monk's melodic creation. Her subtle variations in dynamics and vocal inflections are enticing, such as after Gunnison's lilting piano solo, when she returns by repeating a word with a timbre that intimates the sound of a trumpet. Ferro, who has also written lyrics to many Django Reinhardt tunes (Django by Ferro), is brilliant here, his lines both moving and in keeping with the mood and spirit of Monk's lovely ballad.

          Dim the light and let's go on pretending
          That this time it's real
          So round and round
          The carousel is winding down
          And still we dream of love

July 15, 2008 · 0 comments


Chick Corea & Gary Burton: Four In One

Charlie Rouse said that when Thelonious Monk first hired him in 1959, the leader taught him all Monk's tunes by playing them on the piano, except for more difficult ones like "Trinkle Tinkle," "Played Twice" and "Four in One," which Monk wrote out. On Corea and Burton's duet CD Native Sense, they saved the best for last, a rollicking performance of the tricky "Four in One." This was their fifth duet recording to date, and their first in 12 years, but their uncanny rapport made it seem as if they played together on a daily basis.

Corea's jagged, verging-on-dissonant intro sets up his madcap trip through the serpentine theme in loose unison with Burton, or, if you will, off-kilter counterpoint, accentuated by the pianist's sporadic smashed chords. Burton solos first, his trademark four-mallet intricate lines and warm vibrato on keen display, his playing, as always, both technically impeccable and openly lyrical. Corea's response is totally unpredictable, his swift, tumbling runs interspersed with jolting single notes and chords, as well as distorted allusions to stride, but somehow always keeping the melodic line in clear sight. He and Burton next exchange short passages in highly responsive and inventive fashion, before another refreshing, harmonically slack treatment of the theme, concluded by Corea's one last exuberant, Monkish "trinkle tinkle."

July 02, 2008 · 0 comments


Danny Gatton & Joey DeFrancesco: Well You Needn't

Danny Gatton never achieved a modicum of the fame he deserved. He was a true phenomenon. His guitar style was a crosspollination of jazz, blues and rockabilly music, all picked at astonishingly high speeds. As is sadly often the case, it was not until after his tragic death that his legendary musical prowess was more acknowledged.

Ever since childhood Joey DeFrancesco was on track to become the rightful heir to Jimmy Smith's B-3 throne. His dad, "Papa John" DeFrancesco, was an accomplished organist. So DeFrancesco grew up with an appreciation of jazz history and took advantage of every opportunity to capitalize on his situation, including tutelage supplied by his dad.

In February 1994, just 8 months before Gatton's death, these two monster players recorded Relentless. It is an apt name for this CD.

Gatton and DeFrancesco tackle Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't" with a fervor almost beyond description. Gatton "chicken picks" the familiar melody to start. With the fine support of bassist Previti and drummer Biery, Gatton and DeFrancesco turn into whirling dervishes. During a freakishly quick-tempo call-and-response section, Gatton's retorts to DeFrancesco's rapid-fire exultations with his own riffs played at the speed of light. These blurs of sound are made all the more remarkable by the clarity and ring of each individual note. It would be really scary if someone convinced me these guys were not pushing each other to the limits. A contagious high energy is maintained throughout this performance. Good thing it's the CD's last tune. I cannot imagine wanting to hear anything else right after this.

Gatton has entered the esoteric postmortem realm along with guitarist Lenny Breau as two of the greatest players that ever lived without the knowledge of the masses. DeFrancesco continues to be the king of the B-3 Hammond jazz movement. His performance on "Well You Needn't" is just one example of why that crown fits so well.

June 25, 2008 · 0 comments


Joe Henderson: Ask Me Now

Joe Henderson came late to the tenor trio (at least on records), and acquired an immediate reputation in this format thanks to the mastery he had developed in other contexts. On this Monk standard, and with this rhythm pair, Henderson develops a soft-toned yet adventurous way of winding through the repetitive ballad harmonies. The bass is the tenor's main partner, while the drummer's brushes maintain a steady tempo and Henderson's blowing soars in a succession of bluesy choruses punctuated by occasional — and all the more expressive — honks and squeals.

June 24, 2008 · 0 comments


Tete Montoliu: Straight, No Chaser

Thelonious Monk was unquestionably one of the greatest American composers of the 20th century. The fact that he also had a sparse piano style as distinctive and unique as his compositions put the final and definitive stamp on his body of work. A solo pianist such as Tete Montoliu, with his virtuosic and florid style, could either restrict his usual approach to better conform to Monk's roadmap, or just be himself and mold or adapt Monk to suit his own musical personality. Montoliu chose the latter path for his superb CD recital of Monk tunes.

The blind Catalonian could occasionally sound glib and superficial, letting his prodigious technique propel him through a piece with predictable, repetitious runs and little emotional depth. None of that is apparent on "Straight No Chaser." Tete starts out surprisingly with a tender, classically flavored short treatment of Monk's "Jackie-ing," with Monkish splays of dissonance for seasoning, before gliding seamlessly into the staccato theme of "Straight No Chaser." He unleashes daring single-note lines with firm left-hand commentary, sometimes bringing to mind the touch and glossy sound of Art Tatum, and at other times the exuberance of Bud Powell, as in his quick allusion to "Parisian Thoroughfare." Montoliu inventively mixes in a bluesy interlude, some pounding chords, and a walking bassline to add variety to his improvisation. The pianist's return to the melody gives way to a gentle coda and one final stabbed note in the best Monk tradition, as he craftily segues into the second tune of the program, "Reflections." This is Montoliu at his focused, creative best.

June 04, 2008 · 1 comment


Katia & Marielle Labeque: Rhythm-A-Ning

The wonderful pianists Katia and Marielle Labeque may be darlings of the classical world, but they have not been afraid to leave the reservation from time to time. Among their repertoire has been American popular music in the form of their highly appreciated takes on Leonard Bernstein's works, especially West Side Story. Occasionally they have also been found playing interpretive modern jazz, fusion and even sometimes Indo-jazz.

Of the two sisters, Katia seems more open to jazz and has performed it much more often. She is a fan of Miles Davis and has recorded piano duets with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and many other keyboard greats.

Thelonious Monk's "Rhythm-a-ning" is given the Labeque treatment. One might expect to most often hear a tune of this ilk performed in a small nightclub just before the break. But the Labeques treat it as a light classical piece. Their frenzied fingers cover the keyboard with a joyful ease. The ladies take solo turns and throw in enough arcane quotes to please even the most demanding and anal jazzophile.

Don't tell those jazzophiles that the funny thing is that neither Katia nor her sister improvises. Their parts are all written out. You would never know it and they don't hide it. If Herbie and Chick don't mind – I don't.

Interesting note: The other night on television I came across a short feature on Madonna on one of those awful entertainment tabloid shows. In it she takes her road crew to Katia Labeque's house for a private concert. It turns out that Katia is her favorite piano player. It just goes to show you that Madonna has some taste too.

May 20, 2008 · 0 comments


Mark Weinstein: Straight, No Chaser

Fluter Mark Weinstein's Straight No Chaser is a collection of five originals and five covers. He and his band exhibit exceptional skill and taste as they interpret these compositions. Weinstein plays the classic "Straight No Chaser" on a bass flute. You hear his deep and forceful breaths almost as much as you do the frantic notes that result. This causes his playing on this piece to have almost a scat-singing effect. The clanging of the flute's keys is quite audible as Weinstein aggressively attacks them. This is also cool sounding. Who would have thought of playing a flute low and rough? The band attacks the tune from the start. Guitarist Stryker is particularly impressive during his solo, after which "Straight No Chaser" becomes a swinging affair. As I have mentioned in other reviews of flute players, they must work extra hard to get their instrument to be more versatile. Weinstein should be credited for his imagination and successful effort to put the flute across in a new light on this cut.

May 15, 2008 · 0 comments


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