Thursday, June 27, 2019

Monk, Monk, More Monk!

A big part of learning about jazz for me consisted of haunting cut-out bins (remember those?) and buying bargain copies of albums that, for one reason or another, attracted me. I remember seeing the cover of Thelonious Himself and wondering about this cool cat on the cover ( I knew very little about jazz at the time, but I was familiar with John Coltrane, so when I saw that he played saxophone on the last track of what was otherwise a solo piano album, that Lp came home with me. It was the start of nearly half a century of totally loving the music and the playing of Thelonious Sphere Monk. At first, with the exception of ‘Round Midnight, hardly anyone played Monk’s songs aside from the maestro himself and a few disciples like Steve Lacy and Johnny Griffin (in the quintet he co-led with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis). Over time, as more and more musicians were drawn to his material, entire albums of Monk’s compositions began to appear. A trickle of tribute sessions turned into a flood, and before long, Monk’s tunes were showing up all over the place. Then, in 2005. came the first “complete” release, Monk’s Casino by the Alexander von Schlippenbach quintet, which offered 57 tracks on three CDs. Trumpeter Don Sickler and guitarist Steve Cardenas collaborated on the Thelonious Monk Fake Book, with lead sheets for 70 tunes, including several that Monk himself never recorded. 2017 was the centenary of Monk’s birth, and in celebration, we now have two more complete collections of Monk songs. Both are six-disc sets. Work: The Complete Compositions Of Thelonious Monk is a solo guitar effort by Miles Okazaki, self-published on Bandcamp, while Monk’s Dreams by the Frank Kimbrough quartet was issued by Sunnyside Records. Since there’s never enough Monk to listen to, note also the releases of pianist Andrés Vial Plays Thelonious Monk: Sphereology Volume 1, with the hint of more to come, and Duck Baker Plays Monk. with renowned finger-style guitarist Baker giving us versions of nine Monk songs.
All of which makes this a great time to indulge in a Monk Marathon. I’d suggest you start with a little of the master composer himself, whether it’s some of his critically important Blue Note sessions, the illustrious Riverside period, or even the Columbia years. Getting a bit of Monk’s playing freshly into your skull sets the stage and whets the appetite for more interpretations. Then turn your attention to the audacious Work: The Complete Compositions Of Thelonious Monk, where Miles Okazaki has devoted a large chunk of time to learning and playing Monk’s tunes on his lightly amplified 1978 Gibson Charlie Christian ES-175 archtop guitar, guided by Monk’s admonition to Steve Lacy in 1960: “Stop playing all those weird notes, play the melody!” His priority, he writes in his extensive essay that accompanies this download-only effort, “was to make a natural and lifelike improvisational performance” of each tune. In this, he has succeeded admirably. The simple and unvarying setup combined with the naturalistic recording process, overseen by fellow guitarist Liberty Ellman, allows the listener to hone in on Okazaki’s ever-beautiful delineations of Monk’s tunes. In addition to his introductory essay, Okazaki also includes notes on each of the songs, limning his approach to each one. The pieces are thoughtfully sequenced on the equivalent of 6 CDs, each one ending with a blues. That’s a lot of guitar to take in, so let me make a further suggestion: alternate the 6 discs of Okazaki’s set with the 6 discs of Frank Kimbrough and friends.

On Monk's Dreams, the much-admired Frank Kimbrough manages to almost never sound like Monk while playing his tunes. That’s not a surprise, since the composer had his own distinctive and inimitable approach to the keyboard, but when you play Monk’s music on the piano, comparisons are unavoidable. Working with multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson, mostly heard on tenor saxophone, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Billy Drummond, Kimbrough varies the program by mixing solo, trio and duet tracks into the flow. On the first disc, for instance, Reflections is caressed by the duo of Robinson on bass sax (!) and Reid on bass, and the disc concludes with a springy version of Blue Sphere performed by Drummond on drums and Robinson on tenor. Kimbrough goes it alone on Crepuscule With Nellie to open the second disc, and goes on to play Ruby, My Dear as a duet with Robinson’s tenor sax. There are way too many highlights to note throughout this collection to more than a few. On the first two discs alone, there’s Robinson’s well-constructed tenor solo on Played Twice, Robinson back on bass sax for Little Rootie Tootie, Kimbrough’s crisp accompaniment and lovely solo on San Francisco Holiday, and the pianist’s unhurried solo look at Functional. And everywhere, the listener can delight in the solid bass work of Rufus Reid and the unbridled enthusiasm and swing of drummer Billy Drummond. In a liner note, co-producer and recording engineer Matt Balitsaris discusses the sessions and notes that virtually everything you hear is a first or second take. The entire project took just six days to record 68 tunes, with Kimbrough’s solo pieces done a month later. The top-notch results arise from the obvious dedication and fierce commitment of the musicians. As Balitsaris exults, the players recorded this music “with such a collaborative spirit that it feels as Monk might have been in the room.” Monk’s Dreams is a tremendous achievement, and it is strongly recommended.

Continue your Monk Marathon with pianist Andrés Vial, who tackles some less-familiar numbers on Plays Thelonious Monk: Sphereology Volume 1. The lead-off track is the obscure Bluehawk, a seldom-played Monk tune that the composer recorded just once, on 1959's Thelonious Alone In San Francisco. Dezron Douglas on bass and Rodney Green on drums set the pace, and Vial and guitarist Peter Bernstein state the theme together before Bernstein takes off on a typically lively and lyrical solo. Vial follows with a fluid and suitably bluesy solo before turning the spotlight over to Douglas for a chorus before the band takes the tune out. Vial convened two quartets a couple of months apart for this release, each featuring guitarist Bernstein, with bassist Martin Heslop and drummer André White on the earlier date, replaced by Douglas and Green for the second session. While there’s sometimes the feeling that the rough edges of Monk’s tunes have been smoothed down a bit, there’s also the sense that Vial and his bandmates have really inhabited the material. The propulsive Think of One is particularly fine, including an inventive piano solo by Vial. Equally tasty is the quartet’s jaunty version of Green Chimneys, with a wonderfully snappy drum solo by Green. Light Blue is on the slow side, with a punchy guitar solo by Bernstein and a smoothly incisive turn by Vial. Bernstein shines again in a duet with Vial for a meditative look at Ask Me Now. The Heslop-White rhythm team is heard on the last three tracks of the disc. Introspection coasts right along, with some adept comping by Vial during Bernstein’s extended solo. Their version of Work features a bouncy piano solo and a happily swinging series of four-bar trades by Bernstein and Vial with drummer White. The disc ends with another tune rarely played by the composer, Functional. Vial and his bandmates give this blues a late at night, last set kind of feeling. It’s a fine way to end the date, and leave the listener looking forward to the next installment.

Last, and far from least, is Duck Baker Plays Monk, a vinyl-only release from Triple Point Records. The label has also produced a vinyl reissue of an earlier gem by Duck Baker, the 1996 album Spinning Song : Duck Baker Plays The Music Of Herbie Nichols, originally released in Japan on the Avant label. In a liner essay for the Monk project, Baker notes a significant difference between the two tribute albums. The Nichols project resulted from a suggestion by John Zorn at a time when Baker hadn’t arranged any of the tunes. He “had been fooling around with Monk’s tunes for almost all of my musical life” when the time came to make this album. Baker goes on to note that he learned a lot of Monk songs by ear, with tips from fellow guitarists like Ton Van Bergeyk and Davy Graham. He also praises the assistance of the late Roswell Rudd, an occasional collaborator and expert on Monk and Nichols, who contributed some voicings to these pieces, and also wrote a typically insightful essay for this release. It seems to this non-musician that learning a song by transcribing it from record, listening to it over and over again until you think you’ve got it, has to incorporate it into your musical muscles in a very different way than reading it from sheet music. The process of learning by ears yields more freedom to subsequent interpretations. Think of Charles Mingus teaching his bands to play his tunes by singing and playing them. The result here is that Baker’s versions of nine Monk compositions are exquisitely playful, with the melodies and harmonies thoroughly assimilated and distilled from a lifetime of listening and playing. In Baker’s vision, Jackie-ing is more introverted than usual, ‘Round Midnight, a song you think you know, sounds utterly refreshed in his hands, and the deceptively simple Light Blue sounds like it was written for guitar. This is a truly beautiful album, ranging, as Rudd notes, “from moments of profound simplicity to those of bristling complexity ...” Since 1976, Duck Baker has proved through his recordings of material ranging, per his website, from “traditional Irish music through old-time mountain music and bluegrass to blues, gospel, and ragtime to swing and modern jazz, to free improvisation” that there’s no music that he can’t make his own. On Plays Monk, he’s done it again. Strongly recommended, and the perfect coda to a Monk marathon.
Miles Okazaki: self-produced; Miles Okazaki (g); Brooklyn, NY, September 2017-May 2018; Volume 1 (46:43): Locomotive/ Brilliant Corners/ Gallop’s Gallop/ Light Blue/ Evidence/ Crepuscule with Nellie/ San Francisco Holiday/ Monk’s Point/ Shuffle Boil/ Jackie-ing/ Criss Cross/ Introspection/ Functional. Volume 2 (48:19): We See/ Sixteen/ Misterioso/ Humph/ Teo/ Hornin’ In/ Raise Four/ Skippy/ Pannonica/ Think of One/ Well You Needn’t/ Bolivar Blues. Disc 3 (45:58): Monk’s Dream/ Little Rootie Tootie/ Eronel/ Thelonious/ Ruby, My Dear/ Four in One/ Blue Hawk/ Stuffy Turkey/ A Merrier Christmas/ Played Twice/ Bemsha Swing/ Blues Five Spot. Volume 4 (48:10): Bye-Ya/ Who Knows/ Green Chimneys/ Blue Sphere/ Ugly Beauty/ Oska T./ Hackensack/ Ask Me Know/ I Mean You/ 52nd Street Theme/ Something in Blue. Volume 5 (47:49): Nutty/ Off Minor/ Two Timer/ In Walked Bud/ Monk’s Mood/ Let’s Call This/ Let’s Cool One/ Children’s Song/ Boo Boo’s Birthday/ Rhythm-a-ning/ North of the Sunset. Volume 6 (47:31): Epistrophy/ Coming on the Hudson/ Bright Mississippi/ Trinkle, Tinkle/ Reflections/ Brake’s Sake/ Straight, No Chaser/ Friday the 13th/ ‘Round Midnight/ Work/ Blue Monk.
Frank Kimbrough: Sunnyside SSC 4032; Scott Robinson (ts, bass sax, echo cnt, tpt, contrabass sarrusophone, bcl) Frank Kimbrough (p) Rufus Reid (b) Billy Drummond (d); Pipersville, PA, May 22-24 & 28-30, [band] and June 20, 2018 [solo piano]; Disc 1 (57:02): Thelonious/ Light Blue/ Played Twice/ Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are/ Ask Me Now/ Humph/ Bright Mississippi/ Reflections/ Bemsha Swing/ Teo/ Blue Sphere. Disc 2 (54:20): Crepuscule with Nellie/ Think of One/ 52nd St. Theme/ Eronel/ Bluehawk/ Little Rootie Tootie/ Two Timer/ Ruby, My Dear/ Boo Boo's Birthday/ San Francisco Holiday/ Functional/ I Mean You. Disc 3 (57:01): Shuffle Boil/ Monk's Dream/ Evidence/ Misterioso/ Four in One/ Brake's Sake/ Pannonica/ Bye-ya/ North of the Sunset/ Introspection/ We See/ In Walked Bud. Disc 4 (60:06): Nutty/ Trinkle Tinkle/ Blues Five Spot/ 'Round Midnight/ Jackie-ing/ Well You Needn't/ Sixteen/ Locomotive/ Gallop's Gallop/ Children's Song/ Blue Monk/ Friday the 13th. Disc 5 (52:11): Criss Cross/ Raise Four/ Let's Call This/ Who Knows/ A Merrier Christmas/ Stuffy Turkey/ Monk's Point/ Work/ Brilliant Corners/ Off Minor/ Hackensack/ Oska T. Disc 6 (50:38): Let's Cool One/ Hornin' In/ Coming on the Hudson/ Straight No Chaser/ Monk's Mood/ Green Chimneys/ Rhythm-a-ning/ Ugly Beauty/ Skippy/ Something in Blue/ Epistrophy.
Andrés Vial: Chromatic Audio 111417; Andrés Vial (p) Peter Bernstein (g) Dezron Douglas (1-6) or Martin Heslop (8-10) (b) Rodney Green (1-6) or André White (8-10) (d); Mount Vernon, NY, November 14 (1-6) or September 16 (7-10), 2017; 1.Bluehawk/ 2.Coming on the Hudson/ 3.Think of One/ 4.Ugly Beauty/ 5.Green Chimneys/ 6.Light Blue/ 7.Ask Me Now/ 8.Introspection/ 9.Work/ 10.Functional; 58:58.
Duck Baker: Triple Point Records TPR 271 (Lp only); Duck Baker (g); Cary, NC, November 8-10, 2010, exc. *Balso (Reggio Emilia), Italy, November 23, 2015; Side A: Blue Monk/ Off Minor/ *Bemsha Swing/ Round Midnight. Side B: Light Blue/ Straight, No Chaser/ *Jackie-ing/In Walked Bud/ Misterioso; 46:25.

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