Abbey Lincoln: Blue Monk (2006)

Abbey Lincoln

In converting from chanteuse to provocateur, Abbey Lincoln became a terrible scold. The former Ebony magazine cover girl (June 1957), extolled therein for her "striking physical resemblance (vital statistics: 36-24-37)" to all-American pin-up Marilyn Monroe, and whose upcoming Riverside LP That's Him! would boast a cover photo of the luscious Miss L. practically falling out of her dress, had within two years reinvented herself. In 1959, Ebony's sister publication Jet announced "The New Abbey Lincoln," who "resented the role of glamour girl." According to Jet, "just as the doors of swank cafes were opening to her," Abbey balked. "I really don't fit in," she explained. "I'm a black woman and I have to sing about things I feel and know about—jazz." Comparisons to Marilyn Monroe were jettisoned; white standards of beauty no longer obtained. "I demand that I be respected as a dignified Negro woman," demanded the erstwhile "tan Venus."

By 1961, Abbey's attitude had so metamorphosed through militant feminism and racial victimization that her rendering of "Blue Monk" took on the self-righteous severity of a lecture by Emma Goldman. For her album Straight Ahead, Lincoln paired her own socially reproachful lyrics with Thelonious Monk's apolitical tune, and even her wordless singing of the melody following Coleman Hawkins's solo became somehow taunting and accusatory. Too much 'tude, Dude.

Forty-five years later, at age 76, Ms. Lincoln revisits "Blue Monk" with less drama but dramatically superior results. Malice has succumbed to maturity. This is a wonderfully familial performance. And it's not just the laid-back backwoods backing. It's also in Ms. Lincoln's voice, no longer clenched-fist sisterly resentful and vindictive, but open-armed grandmotherly wise and reflective.

Of course, Thelonious himself would probably have blanched at this setting of his signature tune featuring overdubbed countrified bouzouki, Dobro, mandolin, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, slide guitar, lap steel guitar, pedal steel guitar and cittern slicker Larry Campbell. Back in 1957, when its composer performed "Blue Monk" on CBS-TV's all-star special The Sound of Jazz, such corn pone—officially still called Hillbilly Music—was off-limits at such blue monkeries as Greenwich Village's Five Spot Café, where country was about as welcome as Thelonious would have been on the bill of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. Yet Abbey Lincoln's down-home update is nevertheless a telling tribute to Monk's rugged individualism. And best of all, this isn't propaganda preached harshly in sunlight. It's truth told calmly by moonlight.

May 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Johnny Griffin: A Monk's Dream

Johnny Griffin celebrated his 80th birthday on April 24, 2008. Thirty years prior, in 1978, he returned to the U.S. from Europe for his first American tour in 15 years, and producer Orrin Keepnews brought him into the studio for the session that included Griffin's tribute to Thelonious, "A Monk's Dream." Another 20 years back, in the summer of 1958, Keepnews had recorded Monk live at the Five Spot Café in New York, with Griffin, as the pianist's sideman, producing some of the best playing of his career.

The 1978 Griffin has a somewhat fuller sound, his phrasing less mercurial and daring, and the single-note lines not nearly as breathtakingly extended as in 1958. Griffin's tune itself has the perfect structure and flavor of some long-lost Monk composition recently unearthed. After Mathews's sparkling intro, Griffin caresses the memorable melody and then patiently builds his melodic solo, eventually turning to a more staccato attack as he unleashes some fleet, swirling runs. The overall impression here is of a more mature player, one not as impulsive or compelled to cram as much content as possible into every solo. Mention must be made of the fine solos by Mathews and Drummond, as well as Copeland's estimable support throughout.

May 02, 2008 · 0 comments


Sonny Rollins: Disco Monk

Sonny Rollins has always delighted in the mundane as a means of challenging himself. Lurking behind his penchant for unlikely sources is a trenchant wit that recalls pioneering political cartoonist Thomas Nast. As decisively as Nast lampooned bloated grafters of American politics, Rollins skewers lame ducks of American popular music, simultaneously ridiculing and rising triumphantly above his sources. One is left to wonder, though, as Sonny discos the night away, why a great artist would ruminate on such dross. Satire goes a long way, but enough already, Theodore—we get the point. As for Monk, this silly track's only connection to Thelonious is its title.

November 05, 2007 · 0 comments


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