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


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


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


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


Miles Davis (featuring Charlie Parker): 'Round Midnight

This is one of Charlie Parker’s most unusual recordings. The date was led by Miles Davis, who wrote two of the three tunes recorded that afternoon. The musicians were supposed to record Thelonious Monk’s "Well You Needn’t" but couldn’t complete a master before the recording studio closed. So they switched to Monk’s "‘Round Midnight." This is the only recording on which Bird and Sonny Rollins appear together—both on tenor sax. Parker takes his solo on the song’s opening and closing bridge. Sonny’s solo is on the main theme. Because Parker was signed to Verve at the time, he couldn’t record under his own name. So he was known on the album as Charlie Chan, recording what may be the best version of this jazz perennial.

March 13, 2008 · 0 comments


Steve Coleman: 'Round Midnight

During this set of concerts at a now-defunct Parisian club, Steve Coleman explored different types of music, among which this Monk standard that stands as a unique piece in the alto player's discography. Coleman doesn't play this song in the usual dramatic way, nor does he try to explore the harmonies in an abstract manner. The organic sound of his alto progressively drags the theme into the dense fabric of polyrhythm woven by bass and drums, in the best M-base tradition, and the melody fits perfectly in this context. Andy Milne's solo confirms this assertion: in Coleman's cyclical conception of music, standards are welcome and are bound to display a new potential. After all, isn't it what one expects from classics?

January 31, 2008 · 0 comments


Jack Reilly: 'Round Midnight

In an extraordinarily brief two minutes and 43 seconds, the master pianist, composer and somehow remarkably unheralded Jack Reilly takes this classic Thelonious Monk masterpiece and weaves his own magic, creating a truly unique and refreshing take on this well-worn classic. His decidedly classical influence on the introduction to the song elevates the listener to carefully consider his phrasing on the familiar melody that follows. Reilly’s fondness for the harmonic sensitivity of Bill Evans is apparent half way through the piece and in his very tasteful Evanesque finale. His use of tension and release is masterfully employed throughout to create a harmonic feast and gives this timeless American classic a new feel while brilliantly holding true to the original tune’s deceivingly simple yet enduring appeal.

January 17, 2008 · 1 comment


Dexter Gordon: 'Round Midnight

Due in large part to the concluding chapter of Ken Burns’s engaging yet contentious documentary Jazz, the return of Dexter Gordon to the United States (after 14 years of living in Europe) has gradually become an iconic moment in the history of modern jazz. While there has always been brilliant jazz being performed since the music’s creation nearly a century ago, the late 1970s may have been a time when many jazz fans were nostalgic for the bebop and post-bop giants who had dominated the jazz clubs in decades past. Dexter Gordon’s triumphant return set at the Vanguard satiated some of those desires with an exciting set of music backed by Woody Shaw’s working quartet. Dexter is clearly impacted by his reception and plays especially emotionally and intensely on this Monk classic.

January 13, 2008 · 0 comments


Thelonious Monk & Gerry Mulligan: 'Round Midnight

Producer Orrin Keepnews always did a brilliant job of putting his star musicians into interesting settings that tended to display new facets of their talent. As a result, the Monk recordings on Riverside represent a far more vital body of work than the later releases the pianist made when he switched to a major label. But matching Monk with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan was an especially daring move. The folks at eHarmony would never approve. Who would think that the "High Priest of Bop" (as Monk was sometimes known at the time) and the fair-haired boy of the cool school (who made his reputation by getting rid of the piano in his band) could connect on the same wavelength? But judging by the results, Monk and Mulligan get along like carrots and peas. The opening is mostly cool school restraint, but the intensity ratchets up over the course of the song, and by the time we get to the final melody restatement, Monk is at his most dissonant. Mulligan seems to thrive on this battlefield, where the comping chords come flying like shrapnel. A peculiar moment in the discographies of both musicians, but a great date by any measure.

December 08, 2007 · 0 comments


James Carter: 'Round Midnight

On his CD The Real Quietstorm, James Carter plays baritone sax . . . and tenor sax, alto sax, soprano sax, bass clarinet and bass flute. And plays them well. Of course, such versatility is rarely rewarded in the jazz world. Rahsaan Roland Kirk is hardly ever mentioned these days when jazz aficionados talk about great flautists or great tenor saxophonists -- and his constant switching back and forth among a dozen or so horns no doubt contributes to fans' difficulty in pigeonholing him. The same might be said of Benny Carter, who may have been the greatest alto sax soloist of his generation, but would also be found gigging on trumpet or piano or trombone or writing big band charts. Now we have another Carter whose multifaceted talent resists easy generalization. This baritone sax interpretation of "'Round Midnight" rivals in quality the version that Gerry Mulligan made in his celebrated session with Monk, but its style is far different. The baritone is the linebacker among jazz horns, and Carter brings out all of its muscular attributes. And I love his sound on the instrument. Imagine what he could do if he just focused on bari? Fat chance!

December 08, 2007 · 0 comments


Thelonious Monk: 'Round Midnight (1957 solo version)

        Thelonious Monk at Salle Pleyel (1954)
                Photo by Marcel Fleiss

To truly appreciate Monk's most famous and most revered composition, "'Round Midnight," one must hear one of his solo recordings of it. This one is painfully beautiful, as Monk plays it softly and without a lot of fancy tricks or spiked notes. The CD Thelonious Himself includes one heck of a bonus track, too: 22 minutes of Monk working on the tune, trying to find the right groove and exploring its nooks and crannies. Another (better-recorded) version of the tune came 11 years later and can be found on the two-CD Sony release Monk Alone. It's a totally different beast. Less introspective and more powerful, Monk jabs the keys with a vengeance, as though telling the listener in no uncertain terms that this four-minute gem is an important piece of music.

November 22, 2007 · 0 comments


Betty Carter: 'Round Midnight

Betty Carter wasn't as acclaimed as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn during her career, but that’s certainly not through any fault of her own. Her vocal flexibility and musicianship are second to none, and are on full display on “‘Round Midnight.” Exploring every nuance of Monk’s haunting melody, and reveling in Oliver Nelson’s spacious arrangement, Carter’s pacing is impeccable, leading up to the samba-inspired interlude and breathtaking conclusion.

November 11, 2007 · 0 comments


George Russell: 'Round Midnight

During Thelonious Monk's lifetime, jazzmen widely admired but seldom braved his tunes. "'Round Midnight" was the exception because it resembles a conventional ballad, which allowed musicians to honor Monk without having to cope with his strange melodies and weird chords. Turning this wisdom on its head, George Russell approached "'Round Midnight" unconventionally. During a ghostly one-minute intro, Russell strums inside his piano à la composer Henry Cowell’s The Banshee (1925), while Ellis and Baker manipulate plunger mutes to mimic nightmares at a livery stable. All this resolves into an astonishing 5-minute Eric Dolphy solo, lyrically teetering on the precipice of Free Jazz without plunging into the abyss. A startling and unforgettable performance.

November 08, 2007 · 0 comments


Thelonious Monk: 'Round Midnight (1947)

Monk's initial cover of his best-known song came three years after Cootie Williams first recorded it with majestic trumpeting amid a big band and with nary a hint of bebop. Yet as Monk shows, a small group better befits "'Round Midnight." Using trumpet and sax to help establish haunting atmospherics, Monk carries the melody by himself (except for a 5-note phrase strikingly harmonized between piano and alto) and is the sole soloist. Listeners sometimes mistake Monk's deliberate fractures—by 1947 fully developed both instrumentally and compositionally—as mistakes or hesitation; they are neither. They're the probings of a visionary sculptor radically reshaping modern jazz.

November 05, 2007 · 0 comments


Art Pepper: 'Round Midnight

Due to what the 1950s jazz press euphemistically called "personal problems," the once-prolific Art Pepper made just one recording session between late 1957 and early '59. When his chance came at last for a comeback, Pepper was fortuitously matched with arranger Marty Paich, who believed the chamber orchestral ambience of Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool and Gerry Mulligan's Tentette merited ongoing exploration long after Miles and Mulligan had downsized. Here, Pepper and Paich give Thelonious Monk's oft-recorded "'Round Midnight" one of its most scintillating interpretations. Weaving in and out of Marty's lush backgrounds, Art pours heart and soul into this deeply moving performance.

October 31, 2007 · 0 comments


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