Saturday, October 08, 2005

Dancing With Unmatched Legs (music review)

I compare Thelonius Monk’s music to watching a man who has one leg six inches shorter than the other.  First you notice how awkward each step appears and how noticeably difficult it is to simply walk with a minor asymmetry.  Next, you start to admire just how efficient the guy is and how he’s getting across the room despite the fact that it looks so different.  After a few minutes, it occurs to you that he’s not just walking that he’s dancing and that he’s not awkward at all, but as graceful as any ballerina.  

     I think it was Ralph Gleason who compared John Coltrane’s music to “the sound of a very large man in a very small room”.  Coltrane’s music always verged on being energy rather than notes played over a structure. While his music started very much in the bop tradition playing alto like Charlie Parker, even in the 1954 recordings of Coltrane playing with the Miles Davis quintet you can hear how his sound felt almost too big for the darting-linear solo lines of bop. After he left Miles Davis the second time, Coltrane’s music evolved away from the bebop idiom into almost pure abstraction where he began to challenge bar lines, traditional harmonies, and most of the conventions that bound jazz to the European classical musical vocabulary with which it started.  At its best, Coltrane’s saxophone bypassed the ear and mind and bonded directly with the soul.

     For about seven months of 1957, Coltrane was the featured sax player in the Thelonius Monk quartet.  Coltrane had left the Miles Davis Quintet at least partly due to his then still active heroin addiction.  Monk had just regained his cabaret card after losing it for several years to a possibly bogus drug conviction.  Due to recording contract problems, there was only one studio recording of the group.  Early this year, Larry Applebaum, a jazz archivist at the Library of Congress, found a reel to reel tape marked T. Monk with no information other than the date in the proverbial unmarked box.  By the way, there’s a lot of this in jazz.  I have an old friend who is Art Blakey’s grandson.  He tells me that the family literally has a closet filled with old tapes of the Messangers.  The Library of Congress tapes turned out to be a Voice of America radio broadcast (propaganda used to be a whole lot better fifty years ago.  I mean Monk and Coltrane vs. Armstrong Williams on No Child Left Behind?) . Apparently, the recording quality is better than the studio date.  link to blue note and samples  This is the equivalent of finding an unsigned DaVinci or an unpublished Chekhov story, film showing Josh Gibson hitting against Dizzy Dean, or finding a slice of the original Original Ray’s pizza.  

     One of the problems with hearing a gift from fifty years ago is that we hear into it things that hadn’t happened in 1957. Our present ears want to believe that this tape documents the magic moment when Coltrane began the “Moment’s Notice” metamorphosis from bop sideman to avant garde icon.  The reasoning seem to be that Monk as the high priest of bop eccentricity waved some odd chord progressions in front of Coltrane and mysteriously changed his musical horizons. I believe that Coltrane was already a more mature musician than that. But Monk was, after all, the man who danced around the piano in a beanie.  Because, the Monk-Coltrane quartet managed to avoid the studio so well, there’s a mystery to it that makes this version of Coltrane’s evolution so appealing.  
     On the Carnegie Hall tape, you do hear Coltrane sounding different than he did with Miles.  It’s darker, a bit more thoughtful, certainly more angular, but that’s also the difference between Monk and Miles Davis of the time.  Miles’s music was more brooding and Monk’s music always had both a bit more humor and a more probing quality.  One could just as easily point to Coltrane’s much-documented participation in the “Greatest Jazz Recording of all time” A Kind of Blue and its use of modes rather than chord progressions as the sound-changing event for the sax player.   The Carnegie Hall tape is not any clear precursor to Trane’s eventual “sheets of sound”.  While I’m sure that Monk’s interest in odd chord changes did play some role in Coltrane’s evolution, I honestly don’t know that I could take say Trane’s late Paris Concert or his work with Pharoah Sanders and trace it back to his time with Monk or this tape.  Carnegie Hall sounds like a Monk concert.  

     I’m not a musician, but I’d argue that Coltrane might have found his way there had he simply stayed with Miles Davis.  If jazz is as Whitney Balliet put it “The Sound of Surprise”, no figure other than maybe Mingus epitomized the music’s constant need for change and exploration more than Miles Davis.  Certainly, Miles’s restlessness must have influenced Coltrane.  Because so many want to make so much of these suddenly apparated tapes, I suspect no one wants to say the obvious right now.  After Monk’s music was formed in the early fifties as kind of a cubist version of stride piano, his music barely changed.  Always sui generis, once Monk created his musical world, it has to be said that he never left it.  Monk’s last European concerts on Black Lion honestly don’t sound noticeably different from Monk on Columbia or Monk on Riverside.  I do think there are differences between Monk with Charlie Rouse, Monk with Sonny Rollins, and now that we have enough of it to make more of a judgment Monk with Coltrane, but I’m not sure any of these great musical minds necessarily influenced Monk all that much.  While Miles for many years played the same bop and popular standards, they also always changed.  The All Blues of Miles’s 1963 concert pushes forward at a speed that makes it sound like Oleo at points.  The All Blues of a Kind of Blue glides.  Monk, on the other hand, played the same 30-40 songs of his cannon along with an occasional standard with a stubborn classicism.  Sometime the tempo changed, but the compositions never much changed form.

  The one musician who did seem to bring out something a little different in Monk to my ear was Art Blakey, the drummer on Monk’s earliest Blue Note recordings.  I would argue that there is good reason for this.  The piano has a dual nature.  It is both a percussion and a stringed instrument.  More than any jazz pianist, I believe Monk conceived the piano as a kind of tuned drum.  While others might debate how Monk influenced Coltrane, I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that Trane’s stay with Monk had much influence on Monk.

     That said, this is a great record.  Monk was a master at creating space and no other horn player was better at filling space than Trane, to the point where even early on he seems to be playing chords instead of single notes.  One of the best things about the better audio quality is that you actually hear the way Malik and Shadow Wilson both embellish and push Monk’s piano lines.  On the opening ballad , Monk’s Mood, the sparseness give the sound an immediacy and freedom that’s sometimes missing in later Monk.  Epistrophy also has an energy and mystery to it that typifies Monk at his best.  More than anything, the Carnegie concert has a relaxed feel especially from Coltrane.  In the earlier much compromised tapes of Coltrane and Monk, you can hear Coltrane still trying to clear some of the hurdles that come with negotiating Monk’s music.  Here Coltrane, after five months of playing the Five Spot with Monk, confidently answers Monk’s solos and prompts as a full partner now fluent in Monk.  In sum, it’s two of the seminal musicians of the century playing together and in great form.  Four musicians, play, listen to one another, and push one another forward.

Anyone who loves music should be celebrating this recording.  It’s not the Rosetta Stone to late Coltrane, but it shouldn’t have to be.  The only thing that’s painful for me is that I find myself wondering who will push America’s most fully realized art form ahead in the next century? In the meantime, I have the sound of Monk and Trane, who was the only sax player who could tap dance and tango at the same time, somehow magically dancing together for almost a full hour.  



At 10/11/2005 04:25:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I listen mostly to a little night music and the music of the spheres, so can only admire from the outside your wonderful article.

Anyone reading it will certainly hear more vividly. I hear everything more geometrically just having read it.

I loved many tidbits, but was smitten by "cubist version of stride piano" . . .

At 10/11/2005 10:37:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
thanks. One of the oddities is that Thelonius Monk's middle name was "Sphere", believe it or not.

At 8/07/2006 02:44:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Wow, many thanks Brother Curmudgeon. It's always nice to see that anyone finds my older posts here.

I hope you can visit a bit more so I can see what I'm mystically connecting to.


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