Philadelphia Story

At 84, Martial Solal’s tremendous piano technique remains astonishingly fluid.   The octaves are tossed off like single notes, the right hand cascades are precise, the left hand bounds about like a well-trained poodle.

I’ve never really connected with Solal on record, and regrettably last night’s solo recital in the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center left me equally unmoved.  However, he is a dedicated improvisor, so “There’s a Small Hotel,” “Cherokee,” “Corcovado,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and other standards will be entirely different on another night.  A close friend assures me that sometimes he enters a phenomenal space and then all bets are off.  That almost happened when an entrancing polyrhythm began churning on “Tea for Two.” His diffuse but sincere medley of “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Caravan” was good too.

Martial Solal is about to play a week at the Village Vanguard; all New York lovers of interesting piano music should go see a set.

But even on his best day, the constant cutesy endings must be a problem.  To conclude a pointlessly abstract, incomplete “Begin the Beguine” (a wonderful song which must be played all the way through and fairly straight to make sense), he blasted off a left hand Hanon exercise in B major underneath a quote of the old blues “Frankie and Johnny” in C.  Why do this?  As a dumb joke?  I don’t get it.

I admit I was in a bad mood.  This concert was the final event of the 2010/2011 series Jazz Up Close Celebrates Thelonious Monk.  Geri Allen, Randy Weston, and artistic director Danilo Perez also performed as part of this Monk-themed series, and last night Perez was on hand to have a pre-performance chat with Solal.

Perez naturally asked Solal how he responded to Monk.  Solal said he was impressed that Monk wore a hat onstage, but obviously Monk wasn’t a serious pianist.  A composer, sure, but not someone who could make it in the Conservatoire.

Solal is not the only virtuoso who has dismissed Monk.  Oscar Peterson and Lennie Tristano did as well.  Still, I was deeply offended that Solal chose this time and place, the last gig of the Monk series, to air this opinion.  When will Thelonious Sphere Monk get the respect he deserves?

Solal’s opinion is simply wrong, anyway.   Piano technique doesn't just mean playing fast, it means playing with great time, emotional projection, and a full tone.  Who had better piano technique than Thelonious Monk?

Solal rummaged around inside “‘Round Midnight” during his set, smacking a few clusters and transposing themes into other keys.   The audience murmured appreciatively, but all I could think of was Monk’s solo version recorded in 1954 just days after Solal and Monk met and played back to back at the Salle Pleyel.

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Before Solal came on I had to endure an hour of college jazz students reading down Monk music.

The kids were good musicians, destined to become professionals.  However, the printed program (and Perez) claimed they were playing charts from the famous Town Hall concert.  That wasn't true:  they mostly used contemporary, normalized lead sheets.  The one big band arrangement, “Little Rootie Tootie” was not Hall Overton’s stark transcription (and highlight of Monk at Town Hall), but some bland version influenced by Perez’s Panamonk. Like everyone else, I enjoy Panamonk, but I was really laying for that Overton arrangement.

And despite their burgeoning professionalism, the students showed no understanding of what makes Monk “Monk.”

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What makes him so hard to play?  For my money he is the most poorly-performed jazz composer.  Walking around defeatedly after the gig, I came up with some possible answers.

Monk's material is always derived from the purest of jazz traditions, but his displaced accents and stark voicings are sometimes thought of as connected to European modernism.  Indeed, Monk is a father figure to the avant-garde.  But Monk’s own music is not pointillist, Webern-esque, or even particularly abstract.   It is hardcore jazz with roots in the blues and Kansas City swing.  Getting abstract with Monk can work -- the George Russell/Eric Dolphy "'Round Midnight" comes to mind -- but to do so takes serious consideration.

Monk’s surrealism has been interpreted as clowning around or startling.   “Oh, look! I just clanged a minor second! Isn’t that funny!”  The Tom Lord discography lists songs called, “Monkin’ Around,” “Monkin’ Business,” “Monk-ing Around,” and “Monking Business.”  To the composers of these works I say:   Fuck you.  Monk never monkeyed around or did any monkey business. Sure, some of his renditions of standards like “Remember” or “Just A Gigolo” are among the greatest examples of jazz surrealism ever recorded.  But they are still serious.  And his clanging minor seconds come straight from boogie-woogie and Harlem stride, not the circus.

Monk’s music is more specific than many realize.  Monk had very little to do with paper, although he could read music very well and write it, too.  He just thought that paper missed the point, because you needed to learn it from him to get it all, and how was paper going to help you do that?  Beginning with Miles Davis, many Monk interpreters have muddled the details.

Monk’s rhythmic concept is strong, obvious, and profound, and if you take that away, you miss the point entirely.  Once in a while a ballad is out of tempo, although, even then, there is never any doubt as to where “one” is.  Most of the time it marches and undulates, and there is also an Afro-Cuban or Caribbean element, brought out on Danilo Perez’s aforementioned Panamonk and Jerry Gonzales and the Fort Apache Band.  But Perez and Gonzales really know what they are doing.   The average jam session version of "Bemsha Swing" rendered as a humorous latin number evades the deeper meaning of Monk's special feel.

Am I saying that no one but Monk should play his music?  No, he’s a great composer and a signal stylist who should be fair game for anybody.

Still, there are only two Monk tribute albums that I keep in steady rotation, and both of them feature special performances by great drummers.  Evidence by Steve Lacy and Don Cherry has a divine turn by Billy Higgins.  The horn solos are excellent, too, although they incorrectly reduce the melody of “Evidence” to a simple hemiola. (Who is Carl Brown?  This mysterious bassist plays great, too.)  I also appreciate Tommy Flanagan’s thoughtful Thelonica with George Mraz, especially for a rare occasion to hear Art Taylor swinging so hard in the early 80’s.

However, Flanagan was regrettably part of one of the least successful Monk performances I’ve ever experienced, the duo with Barry Harris in the movie Straight, No Chaser.  It’s not that Flanagan and Harris aren’t heavy, or that this version of “Well, You Needn’t” is so bad.  In its way it’s very good -- How could it not be, with Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris playing the piano?

But after an hour of Thelonious Monk on video, Flanagan and Harris look and sound like cocktail pianists.  Monk is a major 20th Century stylist and artist:  Every word, every suit, every song title, and (especially) every note was thought out and delivered with maximum intensity.  It would have been unfair to make any other modern jazz pianist follow Monk and play one of his tunes in Straight No Chaser.

To their credit, Flanagan and Harris couldn’t get on a bandstand without swinging.  Martial Solal can swing, too, but he doesn’t seem to take that technique seriously enough.  At least, I could have used a bit more of it from him last night, especially after he said that Monk couldn’t play the piano.

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My experience at the Kimmel began well.  When I went in the foyer was packed with people sampling wine and dancing to the oldies, a state of affairs probably envied by other centralized PACs.  It was a PIFA:  Family Fun Weekend, and my “rush” ticket was only $10 -- I expected to pay at least three times as much.   (But I wasn’t told about the hour of student Monk I’d have to sit through, either.)

The really exciting event was getting to hear Robin D.G. Kelley’s pre-concert talk.  I’ve spent this whole post bitching about Monk interpretation and reception, so it’s high time to acknowledge Kelley’s sensational book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.  The inexpensive paperback edition is just out:  everyone who enjoys DTM should buy it.  A couple of unedited extras are available on the book’s website; see especially the material on “Eronel” and the Five Spot.

Kelley’s book was released around the same time as Terry Teachout’s biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops.  Teachout positions Armstrong not just as a jazz musician, but as an overwhelmingly important figure in popular culture. (This great book is out in paperback, too.)

Kelley’s repositioning of Monk is less obvious but just as important. In Kelley’s view, Monk was not just the product but an integral part of a vibrant black jazz culture. (Go here to look at a photo featured in Kelley's slideshow:   Monk in Brooklyn in 1952 or 53 -- where the NYPD didn’t enforce their cabaret card policy, and where most of the patrons were black.)  Kelley’s work can only help future interpreters of the Sphere songbook, for keeping this culture in mind should be crucial when considering Monk.

Kelley is a charismatic speaker and his presentation drew a respectable audience.   The audio tracks were three of the best: “Evidence” solo from ’54 (dig how the first bar is only an octave D yet somehow we hear the whole E-flat chord), “Monk’s Mood” with Coltrane at Carnegie (they take so much time with each phrase!) and the Overton transcription of “Rootie Tootie” from Town Hall (since I missed it at the gig, at least I heard it at the talk).

To go back to the idea of Monk’s technique:  my one quibble with Kelley (and it is really just a mild quibble, for his book is fabulous, and I hope all his complete interviews with already deceased musicians are archived properly) is how much time he spends defending Monk’s pianism on European grounds, even going so far as to claim that Monk played Chopin études at home.  Well, Monk could read music well, and all pianists of any inclination sight-read through some Chopin occasionally, so that’s no surprise.  But ultimately that defense is misguided, because it implies that playing Chopin is harder than playing Monk.  It is not.

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Kelley was introduced by Victor L. Schermer, author of some excellent online interviews.  Kelley praised his own, and just that day I was gobbling up Schermer’s talk with Philadelphia legend Mickey Roker.

There’s a rumor afoot that I may get a chance to interview Roker myself this week.  In case it happens, I’ve been in full research mode.  My Mickey Roker playlist so far:

Gigi Gryce, The Hap’nin’s   One of Roker’s first records. He sends off a heartfelt “Frankie and Johnny” with flair.

Bobby Timmons, Connecticut Jazz Party  An incredibly swinging bootleg. Timmons may overplay a bit (he’s undoubtedly high) but Sam Jones and Roker sound sweet together. Haven’t really heard Sonny Red before -- interesting player!

Milt Jackson and the Hip String Quartet  Pre-CTI but not by much. Fun and funky.

Mike Longo, Funkia  Not bad, but Ron Carter and Mickey Roker could be allowed more room in a trio session.

One More - The Music of Thad Jones (with Hank Jones, Richard Davis, Jimmy Owens, Benny Golson, James Moody, Bob Brookmeyer) Have I seen even one review of this recent record?   Really pretty great.  Strange bass performance, of course. Roker has his hands full dealing with Davis, but that makes it all the more interesting.

Hank Jones and Frank Wess Hank and Frank  H’mm, I’ll keep listening, but my first impression is that this is a bit disappointing.

Eddie Diehl Well, Here It Is  Who is Eddie Diehl? I didn’t even know what instrument he played when I bought it off iTunes. It turns out that he's been around a long time and even recorded with Brother Jack McDuff and Hank Mobley.  Fans of straight-ahead guitar or Hank Jones, get this.   Much better than the contemporaneous Hank and Frank for some reason.  (Not that Frank Wess isn’t great!)

Duke Pearson Prairie Dog, Sweet Honey Bee, Wahoo  Why didn’t I know these classic records already?  Get it together, Giles.

Mary Lou Williams Free Spirits  WOW. About time I heard this, too. With Buster Williams.

Dizzy Gillespie Live at Ronnie Scott’s I had high hopes for this but it hasn’t gotten me interested yet.

Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie, The Gifted Ones  Incredibly casual quartet with Ray Brown. Why didn’t Norman Granz insist on at least one rehearsal or a musical director for all these jam session records?  But “Ow,” is killing, I’ll play that for Mr. Roker if I get the chance.  Basie plays modern rhythm changes!

Junior Mance Happy Time  Jaysus, young Ron Carter throwing down. Duck and cover! Ron is almost too strong. Bass players, hear this.

Joe Locke, Mike LeDonne, Bob Cranshaw, Mickey Roker Rev-elation  I haven’t heard enough of Locke or LeDonne, they sound great. The Rhodes works amazingly well. Straight ahead lives. It’s a tribute to Milt Jackson.

Shirley Scott, Blues Everywhere  Thanks to Red for the tip. Roker in residence with now-deceased fellow legends Scott (on piano) and Arthur Harper. Philly soul indeed.

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This will be the last post for a week or two. On deck: interview with Henry Threadgill + sidebar analysis and a blindfold test with Lawrence Block.

04/10/2011

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