Rest in Peace, Clark Terry.
NY Times obit by Peter Keepnews
Peter Hum's comments and links
In May 1958 Clark Terry went into the studio with Thelonious Monk, Sam Jones, and Philly Joe Jones for Orrin Keepnews and Riverside Records. The resulting album, In Orbit, is almost certainly Terry's best known as a leader, simply because Monk is such a giant and there are so few documents of Monk as a sideman.
Even though it is famous, In Orbit probably isn't Terry's finest personal showcase. Recordings with Oscar Peterson or Bob Brookmeyer or some of the Ellingtonians might offer a better example of Terry's bluesy insouciance in full unfettered effect.
It's not that Terry isn't great on In Orbit. But he's leading a quartet date of conventional tunes, and look who he's got on piano! Monk always remakes the jazz at hand into his own image. There’s seldom much room for anything in the frame but “MONK” when he’s around.
It would be one thing if Terry had played a bunch of Monk tunes or repertoire specially tailored for the date. Instead the set list is essentially what Terry would play with anybody. If In Orbit has classic status, that status is testament to Terry's grace under pressure.
"In Orbit" Appropriately enough, the album begins with an abstract fanfare: Piano, flugelhorn, and bass all emit bizarre thumps before Philly Joe plays a fast two-bar break. That drum break is easy to follow, but only Sam and Terry come in correctly with Philly Joe on "4." Monk (rather unmusically) thunks on the following "1" instead. It's probably not an accident: Monk refuses to play that hard-bop “4” hit throughout the head in and the head out. (Philly Joe is there every time.)
The changes of "A" are what I think of as "Perdido" changes, although "Perdido" was surely not the first iteration of these fairly basic moves. “Argentina” on this album is also "Perdido" changes, so this progression was clearly on Terry’s mind.
When Terry blows, he confidently bops his way through the fleet tempo.
Monk isn’t quite as comfortable. Indeed, might this be the fastest BPM we’ve ever heard from the High Priest? Even though it’s not his usual turf Monk is coherent enough when connecting Harlem Stride and whole tone patterns at speed.
However, it gets a little weird when Monk comps so little during the trades. In my opinion, too much of In Orbit is a trio of flugelhorn, bass and drums. Shouldn’t the piano back Terry when trading with Philly Joe? The second chorus of trades is better but there are still holes. The last melody statement is pretty empty as well. It’s not clear whether Monk is being deliberate with a certain sparse aesthetic or just doesn’t have his head fully in the game.
“One Foot in the Gutter” Terry gets to lay his trademark talking gutbucket on us during this bluesy AABA song in F.
Monk is really amusing during the "waltz" bridge. The bridge changes are:
G-/ C7/ F/ F7
Bb/ B dim/ G7/ C7
At first glance, this seems fine...But when you look closer, there’s something that isn’t totally unforced: B diminished going to G7.
Monk must agree, because he steadfastly avoids that G7, no matter what. After B diminished, his hands close naturally on F second inversion instead.
Unfortunately Terry’s tune highlights the G7 with a sustained B natural in the melody before going to a syncopated hit on the upbeat of C7. Sam and Philly Joe try to honor the chart but Monk doesn’t care. He isn’t gonna play that G7. Fuck that G7.
Monk’s authoritative comping makes anything sound cool, even when “wrong,” so the first three choruses - melody, Terry solo, Monk solo - skate the debated moment smoothly enough. But when Terry comes back for more, Monk stops playing nice. Monk refuses to play the bridge at all. Instead of a "B," Monk just plays “A” again. Terry’s second go becomes four “A’s” in a row. Wow!
Terry retires to think this over, during which Sam gets a shot, who gamely outlines the “correct” changes on the bridge. (Monk is utterly silent.) Kind of a long song at this point. Terry takes it home from “B,” still without a G7 from Monk of course.
No second take! Apparently they all thought, “OK, that was cool, time for the next number.” And it is cool: swinging jazz, the truth of the blues, warts and all.
Monk’s mischief may be teaching a greater truth. I’d argue that his lesson is that Terry’s tune doesn’t need any waltzing “B” section whatsoever. The nice melody of “A” could just be 16 bars, two 8s with different closures, something like Horace Silver’s “The Preacher.” This folkloric solution would be more groovy than going to further progressions for a bridge.
"Trust in Me” Monk’s superb intro toys with the tune before a trademark cascade ends with a perfectly uniform downbeat by whole band. You aren’t going to get that to happen again, better make this the take!
Monk frequently played standard ballads, but usually they were trio or solo. I can’t think of a Tin Pan Alley number at drag tempo with Charlie Rouse in the lead.
How lovely to hear Terry’s sympathetic statement over those sweet and sour piano voicings. “Trust in Me.” This is essentially perfect music. If I have a quibble, it is with Sam Jones, who occasionally "waits to see what happens" instead of offering an unrepentant voice. In the liner notes to the collected Riverside Monk, Orrin Keepnews says that Wilbur Ware was supposed to be on the date but didn’t show. I would love to have heard how “Trust in Me” would sound with Ware, who (along with Mingus) was the most rogue bassist of the era.
I certainly don’t mean to criticize Sam unduly, who's generally fabulous on In Orbit. Keepnews in the collected set: "Thelonious was particularly pleased with the work of Sam Jones, who was making his first Riverside appearance, and several months later asked Sam to join his group."
"Let's Cool One" The original liners of In Orbit conclude with producer Keepnews noting that Philly Joe, “…Fulfilled a long-standing ambition to record with Monk.”
This makes sense: All great drummers love Thelonious Monk.
As far as I know, Philly Joe would end up working with Monk infrequently. Certainly In Orbit is their only studio meeting of consequence, and on In Orbit, “Let’s Cool One” is the lone Monk tune.
It seems like Philly Joe might have guessed that his was his only chance, for he makes the absolute most of playing a Monk tune with the composer.
Monk's incandescent mind was always working on several levels. The title “Let’s Cool One” may refer to the white West Coast “cool school,” who in 1958 were probably making much more money than the black East Coast cats. If so, the march of quarter notes in the first three bars is reasonably condescending: “When we are ‘cool,’ we can’t syncopate for shit.”
Philly Joe can lay down a carpet as well as anyone, but when playing the melody of “Let’s Cool One” he chooses to be fiercely interactive. Perhaps he is making a point about playing with Monk; perhaps he’s making a point about conservative West Coast drummers who always stayed in the background.
I like a lot of West Coast cool school jazz myself, but also love the vicious attack on the style that is the first chorus of this “Let’s Cool One.”
Admittedly, I might be overthinking all of this. At any rate, I can’t imagine Philly Joe playing this freely in a first chorus with his usual pianists Red Garland or Wynton Kelly.
The drummer keeps up the heat for the solos of Terry and Monk. Indeed, he’s so strong at the top of Terry that Sam falters for a moment: “Oh, wait, is this the drum solo now?” Eventually, Philly Joe does get a chorus of immortal unaccompanied statement. It’s so good that he seems to think he’ll go again, and rolls for a bar when Monk and Sam begin recap.
Terry joins for last “A” only. Clearly Monk never gave him any paper, for Terry (who was famous as an impeccable studio musician) actually manages to fluff the tiny little "cool" tune.
No matter. This is Thelonious Sphere Monk and Philly Joe Jones jazz at its finest. It simply doesn’t get any better.
"Pea-Eye" Terry's memorable ditty is two choruses of up E-flat blues with different endings. Monk seems to eye the conventional hard bop offbeats in the second chorus with suspicion, and decides that pedaling offbeat left hand B-flats is (just barely) enough.
Terry’s solo is perhaps his finest of the date. Terry was Miles Davis’s teacher, and this blistering fast blues (against nasty Philly Joe fills!) shows that the teacher still has the measure of the student.
Monk hangs in there, although he'd probably be the first to declare that his solo isn’t giving Bud Powell anything to lose sleep over. The way he lays out at the very end is just weird. Maybe he's looking for his beer or something.
"Argentina" The other “Perdido” number is a mellow swinger that suits this band almost as well as “Let’s Cool One.” How wonderful to have a vital Monk solo on something we’d never have the chance to hear him reframe otherwise. I love Monk so much. Late in life, he called one of his compositions "Ugly Beauty." Honestly, is there any greater artistic truth than the idea of "ugly beauty?"
Sam gets an impressive statement, and Terry offers some improvised Monkish straight-eighths.
It's going great, but by this point, nobody expects Mr. “Doesn’t Play Well With Others” T. Monk to help the band find the most appropriate ending. This sleeper track (again) awkwardly concludes as piano-less trio.
"Moonlight Fiesta" However Philly Joe found what he found, Afro-Cuban was a part of it, and this novelty number gives him a chance to honor that debt. Sonny Greer and Ellington "jungle music" are also in the mix, especially since this was a Juan Tizol work originally written for Ellington. "Fiesta" is nice and short and not too serious. Bravo.
"Buck's Business" Another up blues, now in F, and Terry is more like Miles Davis than ever (except the influence went the other way around). Maybe Monk is getting to like these fast tempos, because for the first time it doesn’t seem like he’s ready to quit after a chorus or two. He's there, but then he's not: After the piano solo, it seems like Monk has left the studio, but then he sits back down and grudgingly participates in the final melody. Those chiming major seconds sound almost atonal considering the context.
"Very Near Blue" Sara Cassey wrote interesting mood pieces recorded by Johnny Griffin, Elvin Jones, Hank Jones, and others. “Very Near Blue” is something rather heraldic and mysterious in dark E minor. In descending order of excellence: Terry knows exactly what to do, proud and committed; Philly Joe on mallets hints at double-time Greer; Monk offers loud footballs that come across as more unsettled than helpful; Sam tries a walking march but eventually seems dogged rather than essential.
“Very Near Blue” is almost a truly unconventional masterwork but not enough consensus is reached within the ensemble. The track also lacks a real ending, as it seems like the producers looked for the most harmless (unplanned) fadeout.
[Last two paragraphs updated slightly, additions in boldface. I was working a bit hastily this afternoon.]
I've loved In Orbit ever since I heard it; I also remember having the honor of being the first person to play this "Let's Cool One" for David King. It's very sad that Mr. Terry has passed...but on the other hand, Terry was 94, did here exactly what he was meant to do, and now is the right moment to relisten to his records and celebrate his legacy. I had so much fun going back and giving this essential document a serious listen. I didn't know Mr. Terry, but I'm pretty sure (from what everybody has said about him) that he wouldn't object to anybody having a good time with his music, even if the occasion is a sad one.
Some have found my writing above offensive. Apologies, but I stand by my interpretation. The mysteries of the greatest 20th-century American music are just starting to be unlocked in ways both academic and practical. My comments above are not definitive.