Category Archives: Jazz

Time for the Piano Trio

Here in Spain everyone celebrates the Christmas Season all the way up until the Epiphany on January 6th. Nevertheless, instead of letting Christmas drag on, I strictly follow the day-after-Thanksgiving to December 25th schedule. So while I will keep the Christmas decorations up until January 1st (maybe even until January 6th if my wife gets her way), starting yesterday, December 26th, there is no more Christmas music until Black Friday 2011.

As a result, for the past two days I have been listening to a random selection of my favorite Jazz piano trios (piano, bass and drums), a good transitional genre for what’s left of the holiday spirit: Ahmad Jamal, Andrew Hill, Barry Harris, Bill Evans, Bobby Timmons, Brad Medlhau, Bud Powell, Cecil Taylor, Chick Corea, Duke Ellington, Herbie Hancock, Herbie Nichols, Horace Silver, Jaki Byard, Kenny Kenny Drew, Kenny Drew Jr., McCoy Tyner, Oscar Peterson, Phineas Newborn Jr., Red Garland, Sonny Clark, Thelonious Monk, Tommy Flanagan, and Wynton Kelly.

And of these, Herbie Nichols always surprises me both because of his virtuosity and lack of notoriety. For anyone interested in Jazz piano, I definitely recommend Herbie Nichols’ The Complete Blue Note Recordings (with Al McKibbon or Teddy Kotick on bass and Art Blakey or Max Roach on drums).

As a farewell note to my favorite Christmas tunes, I would like to recognize the perpetual greatness of Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas (also a piano trio album). They just don’t make music like that any more. And a special mention goes to the quasi-Christmas song “The River” from Herbie Hancock’s 2007 Joni Mitchell tribute album with vocalist Corinne Bailey Rae. Although I don’t ice skate, I do love the imagery from the song: a long frozen river to fly away on . . .

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A Little Monk Coincidence

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This morning before leaving the house, instead of uploading podcasts onto my Ipod Shuffle for the daily metro commute, I opted for two Jazz albums dedicated to Thelonious Monk compositions that I had acquired earlier this year: Reflections: Steve Lacy Plays Thelonious Monk recorded in 1958 and Anthony Braxton’s 1987 Six Monk Compositions.

While listening in shuffle mode on the metro on both legs of my commute, I was really digging the pianists but couldn’t identify who they were and couldn’t recall who had been the sidemen for either recording. Just now I checked, and much to my surprise, both albums share the same pianist and bassist, Mal Waldron and Buell Neidlinger respectively, with almost 30 years separating the two recording dates. Also, both albums share the same following compositions: Reflections, Four in One, Ask Me Now, and Skippy. Ask Me Now, fantastic all around. I had not picked up on any of these facts at all when I purchased the two albums, coincidentally at the same time: 52 and 23 years respectively after each was recorded.

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Adding to the List

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I have recently finished reading The Sultan’s Shadow: One Family’s Rule at the Crossroads of East and West by Christiane Bird and Geoff Dyer’s ode to Jazz, But Beautiful. The Sultan’s Shadow was slow at the beginning, often with great emphasis placed on things that had little interest to me (like the details of the Sultan’s palaces in Zanzibar), but overall was a compelling read about a time and place in history that I know almost nothing about: Eighteen Century Zanzibar and East Africa, Omani control over the region and the entrance of European Colonialism, the East African slave and ivory trades, and the British fascination with locating the source of the Nile.

But Beautiful was more of a mix bag. At times, I felt that Dyer was simply trying too hard or that his fictionalized vignettes of the historic accounts of famous Jazz musicians did not always add to a greater understanding of musicians or their craft. For example, the story related to Thelonious Monk reads identical to the Straight No Chaser documentary. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the portrayals of the Lester Young and Charles Mingus. If there was an overall theme it was that the the underlying tragedy of the Jazz musician — beyond even that of racial oppression — was addiction, vitally affecting each character and, instead of enhancing their performance, ultimately inhibiting it (maybe with the sole exception of Mingus whose addiction and principle personality trait was to devour everything in his path). Finally, although I did not particularly enjoy the piece on Chet Baker (mainly influenced by the haunting Let’s Get Lost documentary), I found Dyer’s analysis of Baker’s aesthetic as a sign of his inability to express either beauty or compassion as quite interesting.

And now – due mainly to the fact that for a number of personal reasons I am in a rush to read as much as possible by the end of the year – I have continued to add new books to my list. Like an insensitive ex, I have shamelessly moved on. I have already started David Mitchell’s new The Thousand Autumns of Jacob Zoet, about the Dutch trading post at Dejima, Japan at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. As always with Mitchell, the beginning is slow as I adjust to whatever vernacular he has created for his story, and then it picks up very quickly. New on my roster are:

These, of course, fighting on deck with the books I have yet to get to from the previous lists.

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New Acquisitions

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Here are some recent additions to my Jazz library:

There does appear to be a theme; mainly that my Monk phase lives on.  But, besides getting hold of In Action (a live date from a brief stint with Gigi Gryce on sax), the majority of these albums are based on Monk compositions. Steve Lacy’s Reflections, for example, was one of the first albums ever dedicated  to Monk compositions, recorded in 1958 before Monk had made his popular breakthrough. The second Lacy album, Straight Horn, is made up three Monk compositions, two by Cecil Taylor and one by Charlie Parker. This leads me to the rationale behind At Newport with both Gigi Gryce/Donald Bird’s group and the Cecil Taylor Quartet: Gigi Gryce, as mentioned had been a Monk sideman, and Steve Lacy plays sax here for Cecil Taylor whose style at this early stage in his career was arguably Monk-inspired.

Finally, I acquired the smooth Paul Desmond/Gerry Mulligan combo because besides being so easy and pleasant to listen to, it serves to counter-balance the angularity of the other musicians here (and to appease the wife if she suddenly wonders why I bought even more screechy Jazz).

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Alabama

John Coltrane composed “Alabama” based on the events of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. It is telling how throughout much of  Twentieth Century American history, groups like the K.K.K were given all of the protections of the Constitution while they freely committed what today would clearly be considered acts of terrorism. Meanwhile, throughout most of the 1950s and 60s, civil rights activists were considered by local governments and law enforcement as terrorists and treated with violence. Similarly, up until the final years of Apartheid in South Africa, the U.S. government (as did our closest ally, Israel) supported the Apartheid regime and considered Nelson Mandela a terrorist.

Unless you are in the NRA or the Tea Party and look good in a sixshooter, no matter how much we profess that the people have a right to rise against an oppressive government, neither armed nor peaceful resistance have ever had much support in American politics or society.

Just food for thought and some beautiful music.

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Round Midnight

As mentioned, since reading Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original, my interest in Monk’s music has been rekindled, and I am listening to little else these days. But, in particular, I have become completely addicted to “Round Midnight” — an original Monk composition that became a classic Jazz standard even before Monk himself recorded it and is now the most recorded Jazz standard of all time — of which I have countless Monk versions, as well as excellent interpretations by Cootie Williams, Miles Davis (with Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane), Ken McIntyre, Barry Harris, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron, and George Russell (with Eric Dolphy on Sax).

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An American Original

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For most of 2009, I was a very good boy. Instead of buying new music, I did my best to recycle from the fairly vast collection that I already had – because, of course, the more music you have, the less of it you can enjoy.

And then my frugal trend suddenly took a turn for the worse. Over the last few days, I have been totally engrossed in Robin D.G. Kelly’s new book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. What a fantastic read, especially if you are a Jazz fan. The problem is that the book inspired me to fill in some of the gaps in my Monk collection, picking up

Revisiting some already in my collection, particulary,

And also getting my hands on a few rare gems by other Monk contemporaries:

  • Cootie Williams: 1941-1944 (with some of the first ever recordings of Monk compositions “Fly Right (Epistophy)” and “Round Midnight”, and with Bud Powell on piano).
  • Sahib Shihab: Jazz Sahib (with Bill Evans on piano)
  • Abbey Lincoln: Straight Ahead (with Coleman Hawkins, Eric Dolphy, Booker Little, Mal Waldron, and Max Roach)
  • Pepper Adams: 10 to 4 at the Five Spot (with Donald Bird, Doug Watkins, Elvin Jones, and Bobby Timmons).

Some critics of Kelly’s work complain about inclusion of African American-centric political commentary, of which I assume they mean references to slavery and the racial violence and discrimination that occurred during Monk’s life. But it would be hard to tell the story of a Twentieth Century African American – one whose great-grandparents and grandparents had been born into slavery and, like his fellow black Jazz contemporaries had difficulty traveling freely in certain states and were often harassed by the police – and not recognize that these factors essentially shaped their lives. Ignoring them is a denial of the American experience.

In any event, the book is thoroughly enjoyable and sheds light on Monk as a family man and homebody, a generous teacher – and not the eccentric hermit he was made out to be – but someone fully focused, dedicated and unwavering in the pursuit of his own unadulterated artistic identity. Monk never changed his style, not when he was being laughed at, not when he finally achieved recognition twenty years later, and certainly not thereafter.

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