The lockdown officially started in France on St. Paddy’s Day and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon. Unlike the United States, the government here is taking this thing very seriously. If I want to go anywhere I have to carry a signed form, the Attestation de Déplacement Dérogatoire, describing the purpose of my travel. I can only go out for two reasons: to get needed supplies (thankfully they classified les tabacs as essential businesses) or for exercise within a one-kilometer radius of my home one hour per day. I am not allowed to visit my parents (Dad flew back from the States a couple of weeks ago after he watched a Trump press conference and decided he needed to get the hell out ASAP). The government has drones flying about to make sure people are following the rules (I haven’t seen one yet, probably because I don’t get out much). As I write this, the city issued a pronouncement that all Niçoise are required to wear masks outside; Mayor Estrosi said they’re going to distribute masks to every citizen in Nice.
Several of our clients have suspended consulting work to take care of their own, so we’re only working a few hours a day. This means I’ve got nothing to do but fuck, listen to music and watch classic baseball games (and a stray movie here and there). Under normal circumstances, I’d say, “Life is good.” But it’s not.
More and more people are getting sick and dying. My partner’s brother—the guy who scored the weed for us during the Psychedelic Series—came down with the virus, but it looks like he’s going to be okay. Still, his parents and siblings can’t visit him in the hospital, and many have died without ever seeing their loved ones again. He’s in Spain, where it’s pretty bad, and I’m about twenty kilometers from the Italian border, where it’s catastrophic.
I love The Twilight Zone, but I never wanted to live in a Twilight Zone episode. It’s creepy and depressing.
I grew up in a city and I’ve only lived in cities. Having lots of people around is my normal. I love the energy and spontaneity of street life. I love going out to dinner and hitting the bars and cafés where live music is played. The dead quiet of a city once filled with human movement and the buzz of human voices is intensely distressing for me, as I’m sure it is to all lifelong city-dwellers. But my low-level discomfort is nothing compared to the relentless anxiety of the people working in hospitals, markets and public services, so after a few minutes of wallowing in self-pity, I remind myself this is a battle for survival. If that means being cooped up in the house for a while, suck it up, girl.
I do have my daily routines to give me some sense of normal. The first thing I do every morning when I wake up is head for the sound system and turn on some music. Usually I just shuffle songs and take my chances, but whether I was motivated by a forgotten dream or had received a coded message from the astral plane, on this particular day I felt an overwhelming urge to listen to A Love Supreme. And instead of following my usual M. O. of leaving the room and starting the coffee, I sat down in front of the speakers for the next thirty-three minutes, closed my eyes and let Coltrane’s beautiful music penetrate my soul. After the performance ended, I sat there for a while, feeling calmer and more grounded than I had in weeks. When I opened my eyes, I saw my partner sitting cross-legged on the floor a few feet away, eyes closed, breathing yoga-style, a faint smile on her lips. I scooted over and we held each other for a while, whispering to each other, “It’s going to be okay.”
From that day forward, we have started every morning with A Love Supreme.
A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s spiritual manifesto, presented in a suite consisting of four sections: “Acknowledgment,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.” As Lewis Porter describes it in John Coltrane: His Life and Music, the organization of the four sections “suggest a kind of pilgrim’s progress, in which the pilgrim acknowledges the divine, resolves to pursue it, searches and, eventually, celebrates what has been attained in song.” Given that model, most listeners can grasp Coltrane’s intent and follow the musical progression, but it’s equally important to understand how Coltrane connected spirituality with music:
My goal is to live the truly religious life and express it in my music. If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is just part of the whole thing . . . My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being . . . When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity to free itself from its hangups. I’d like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls.
—Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1999, p. 232
While you may not have thought of music in that way, “to help humanity to free itself from its hangups” is at the core of most “anti-Establishment” music. When you belt out the lyrics to “Cretin Hop,” you’re helping to free yourself from the hangup of judgmental stereotypes; when you sing “It’s late and I want love—love that’s going to break me in two,” you’re ridding yourself of latent puritanism that infects most of the human species. One could argue that great music is “music that helps a person to clean out the noise and inauthenticity of modern life” (or, in a more pithy fashion, “clean out the bullshit”). The role of lyrics is more prominent in rock, blues or folk, but even if you’ve limited yourself to the more lyrical genres, you can relate to the largely instrumental orientation of jazz by recalling the feeling of liberation inspired by a Duane Allman guitar solo, or the playfully ominous licks of Muddy Waters, or the magical fingerpicking of Richard Thompson. The traditionally religious have understood the connection between music and spirituality for centuries; for me, listening to great music is a spiritual experience, whether I’m listening to the New York Dolls or Johann Sebastian Bach.
Porter’s study of Coltrane devotes an entire chapter to A Love Supreme, primarily focusing on the technical aspects of the composition: the dominance of the pentatonic scale and Coltrane’s variations on those scales; his use of overlapping disjunct and conjunct fourths; Coltrane’s techniques for building and releasing tension; the dominant rhythmic figures within the composition; and the wordless recitation of the psalm in the final section. His analysis is brilliant, insightful and impressive—to pull off the feat, he had to listen to the suite carefully and repeatedly, as Coltrane’s written instructions to his collaborators looked like this:
Coltrane provided the structure but not the details. He trusted his fellow musicians to fill in the blanks.
While I appreciate Porter’s effort and found it highly educational, he is a jazz scholar, and his narrative only makes sense to the few people left on the planet who know how to read music; for everyone else, it’s gibberish. Ted Gioia is one of the few musicologists who recognized this challenge; in the opening chapter of How to Listen to Jazz, he shares a parable of a “young scholar who decides to devote his life to the study of African rhythms.” The scholar spent ten years in Africa immersed in his quest, but when he returned to the States and tried to teach some of his students how to play the Dagomba drums, ” . . . they ask him the simplest question of all: ‘How do I know when to enter? When do I start playing?’ In Western music, there is an easy answer. The conductor waves a baton, or a bandleader counts off the beat, or the musical score provides a cue.” The scholar finds himself unable to meet their apparently simple request. “No amount of analysis or rule-making solves his problem. Finally, he realizes that the obstacle can be overcome only by moving away from analysis and entering into the realm of feeling. ‘The only way to begin correctly,’ he eventually discovers, ‘was to listen a moment and then start right in.'” Gioia wraps up the parable with the valuable lesson learned:
Listen a moment and then start right in. There has to be more, no? A decade of apprenticeship, and this is the takeaway? Yet this was the solution, beguiling in its apparent simplicity.
For those who devote the better part of a lifetime to the study of music, stories like this one are humbling. They testify to a magical element in the music, especially in its rhythmic essence, that eludes intellectualization. This aspect of the music must be felt, and if it isn’t felt, academic dissection is futile. The scholar must become more than a scholar to grasp it, and the student determined to follow on the same path must be willing to leave pedagogy behind and embrace something so elusive that, at times, it can hardly be described.
. . . In our parable, hearing trumps analysis. And if this superiority of the ear over the brain humbles the trained musicologist, it also should give a dose of encouragement to the outsider who doesn’t know the terminology and codified procedures of the aural arts. Listening, not jargon, is the path into the heart of music. And if we listen at a deep enough level, we enter into the magic of the song—no degrees or formal credentials required.
Gioia, Ted (2016-05-16T23:58:59). How to Listen to Jazz . Basic Books. Kindle Edition. (underlined emphasis added)
In keeping with that spirit, this review will focus more on the spirit than the details. I’ll refer to the technical stuff when I think it may be helpful.
Coltrane’s acknowledgment of the existence of a higher power is a musical expression of spiritual awakening the mirrors the experience of physical awakening. The gentle gong that opens the suite feels like the moment when we wake from sleep; Elvin Jones’s cymbal washes meld with McCoy Tyner’s piano to create a sound that would make for a glorious accompaniment to a sunrise. Over that background, Coltrane’s tenor sax salvo sounds like the tentative engagement with consciousness we experience as we move from dream state to reality, perhaps accompanied by a nice long stretch after a good night’s sleep. As the notes fly from his sax and a pattern emerges, I’m reminded of those moments when I haven’t played in a while and I just randomly apply fingers to flute or piano without thinking about it or worrying about what might come out. The difference between my approach and Coltrane’s (beyond the vast difference in skill level) is that he views his instrument as a means of connecting with the higher power while I’m just trying to connect fingers to brain. If you heard my opening salvo, you’d say, “Oh, Ari is just warming up,” whereas with Coltrane’s you sense clarity and intent. As Porter points out, the segment serves as a lead-in to the suite, with the music based on E acting as the leading tone to the basic pentatonic F scale of the suite, solid evidence of a compositional objective.
Coltrane fades into background while Tyner and Jones build a mini-crescendo that fades with Jones providing a rapid-fire flourish on the cymbal bell. This cues Jimmy Garrison to enter with the bass ostinato that forms the suite’s dominant motif: a four-note pattern consisting of F, Ab, F, Bb in syncopated 4/4 time. This simple pattern serves as the foundation for a hip-engaging groove that might qualify as sinful in some churches but not in Coltrane’s. Tyner plays a dual role here—the chords he chooses to play anticipate Coltrane’s melody, but he also strengthens the groove to establish what Gioia describes as “rhythmic cohesion,” the defining characteristic of successful jazz. “In the great jazz bands, you can hear the individual members lock together rhythmically in a pleasing way that involves an uncanny degree of give-and-take, but with a kind of quirkiness that resists specific definition,” and as the suite moves forward, you appreciate just how much Coltrane trusted his supporting cast to supply that cohesion.
I hear Coltrane’s solo as his expression of engagement with the higher power, with emotions that range from reassuring calm to nearly inexpressible joy. The moments when he goes altissimo—pushing to the highest ranges of the tenor sax—feel like intense bursts of feeling that combine bottomless gratitude and genuine cherishment of the spiritual connection. As Porter notes, there are times when Coltrane drifts away from the base key as if he has entered a trance-like state, requiring Tyner and Garrison to improvise in kind. Having established his connection to the divine, Coltrane returns to the essential message contained in that four-note motif, transposing it to each of the twelve keys common to Western music, varying the register as he goes. Porter considers this transition “puzzling at first,” but what he means is that it’s puzzling in musical terms; it all becomes clear when we hear John Coltrane chanting the words “a love supreme,” and we realize that “Coltrane’s music is not abstract but is dictated in part by the messages he wishes to convey.” Theme resolved, Coltrane steps back while the music shifts to a soothing rhythm as Tyner then Jones exit the scene, leaving Jimmy Garrison to finish the piece. After repeating the motif a few times, he varies his run and ends his part with an almost classical flourish—a rare honor given to a double bass player and a satisfying conclusion that never fails to elicit a smile. In the process, Garrison changes keys to Eb, which will serve as the key for the second section.
As befits the title, this section is played with greater intensity and resolve; now that the pilgrim has experienced the eternal truth, he solidifies his intent to live his life in devotion to the higher power. “Resolution” is a classic modern jazz composition with Coltrane taking two extended solos and Tyner one. In the first solo, Coltrane defines the dominant motif with its memorable two-note starting point (really the only thing it shares in common with the slower and bluesier “While My Lady Sleeps,” one of Coltrane’s early compositions that some believe is the original source), then proceeds to fly with utter confidence over the full-kit attack of Elvin Jones and comp chords from Tyner. The dynamics soften a bit when Coltrane hands off to Tyner, who knocks it out of the park with an amazing combination of bright chords and astonishingly clear runs that sometimes combine to create what I’ll call an “internal dialogue expressed in call-and-response mode,” where it seems like Tyner’s left hand makes a suggestion while the right hand responds to the challenge. Coltrane wakes Tyner from his trance by easing himself back into the picture and riffing off some of Tyner’s ideas before closing the piece with a return to the dominant theme. Porter notes that the improvisations are more free-form than tied to a particular scale and rely “similarly on much chromaticism and dissonance,” a feature that magnifies the tension evident in the sheer force of the piece.
Takeaway: Resolution is the emotional commitment that precedes the action; as such, the music to “Resolution” is intense, filled with the piss and vinegar that characterizes the vitality of intent.
As we all eventually figure out after the usual bumps and bruises, life isn’t always kind to those with resolve. “What else ya got?” yawns Life in response to our passionate certainty that we have found the answer. Neither Jesus nor Muhammad experienced much in the way of smooth sailing following their enlightenment, for when they actually started to act on their commitment to a higher truth, they wound up pissing off a whole lot of people with more mundane priorities and greater earthly power.
The omnipresent tension in “Resolution” climbs to a peak in “Pursuance,” an even more intense barrage played (mostly) at lightning speed. The piece kicks off with Elvin Jones soloing like a bat out of hell in no particular meter for ninety seconds when suddenly Coltrane steps in with a clarifying riff, which serves as a cue for Tyner and Garrison to join in. The new arrivals spend a few seconds feeling each other out before cohesion arrives in the form of an extended Tyner solo, where Garrison takes a couple of measures to sync with Jones but once he finds the groove, feels comfortable enough to throw in a few departures of his own. While the percussion section proper rides the high-speed wave, Tyner fills in the gaps with an assertive performance that combines velocity with soul-tingling clarity. When Coltrane returns a bit after the four-minute mark, he ignites a different level of passion with a quick burst of tonal clarity, earning a moment of thumping encouragement from Elvin Jones. Coltrane then dominates the scene for about three minutes, returning occasionally to altissimo as if attempting to reconnect with his original awakening. In the context of the pilgrimage described in A Love Supreme, “Pursuance” is the musical moment when the pilgrim’s ideals are challenged by the earthier noise of modern material existence; Coltrane’s exuberant journey here tells me he was up to the challenge.
One of my favorite passages in Porter’s book involves the analysis of the key of this section as defined as opposed to the key as manifested. Whenever I listen to an album I’m about to review, one of the first things I do is identify the key, and in 99% of the rock/pop music I’ve reviewed I can figure it out in about twenty seconds. I love it when I turn out to be wrong and have to dig deeper to figure it out. In this case, Coltrane didn’t give Porter much help, referring to the song as a minor blues in Bb. What Porter realized through deep listening is that while Coltrane used the notes in the Bb minor scale, he launched his solo from the starting point of C, using “the same scale in a different tonal framework.” Coltrane essentially took advantage of Charlie Parker’s discovery that any of the twelve notes that make up the chromatic scale can potentially take you melodically to any key, giving the soloist greater freedom in oscillating between consonance and dissonance. Translating all that into something more useful and connecting it to the substance of Coltrane’s extended solo, what I hear are the musical equivalents of laughter, of puzzlement, of reconnection with one’s mission, of the liberating, healing qualities of music. And though chromaticism can take you anywhere, Coltrane employs good compositional sense by resolving to Bb.
Interestingly enough, Coltrane chose to bookend this section with the percussionists, giving Garrison an extended solo at the end to complement Jones’ extended intro. Garrison’s bass solo is a bit longer than the drum solo and covers more ground, including a hint of the dominant four-note motif, a clearer expression of the blues scale and some marvelous departures from that scale. This feels to me like a segment highlighting both the existential loneliness of the journey (the double bass can be quite a melancholy instrument) and the firm belief that loneliness is merely a condition of material existence that will vanish once the connection to the higher spirit is complete.
Coltrane claims in the liner notes that his awakening occurred in 1957; as noted in my review of Giant Steps, I hear evidence of that awakening on that album, which came out in 1960; A Love Supreme was released in late 1964. By this time he had finally a way to express his experience; “Psalm” is essentially the outcome of his spiritual journey, a celebration of the higher power and the essential unity enabled by that power.
Porter refers to “Psalm” as a “relatively calm postlude” in which Coltrane delivers a “wordless recitation” of the poem that appears in the liner notes of A Love Supreme. Thankfully, Porter inserts the sheet music with the lyrics to the first lines of the poem to demonstrate how this works; the listener can take it from there.
What’s amazing about “Psalm” is how beautifully it flows without “a recurrent chord progression . . . not even a steady beat.” Even without those listening aids, a person hearing “Psalm” for the first time will notice echoes of the blues and gospel music, a feature that Porter was able to connect to the arched shape of each segment (“an ascending phrase, a recitation on one tone, and a descending phrase”). While this may or may not represent a deliberate attempt on Coltrane’s part to mimic the melodically-tinged sermons of African-American preachers, I do agree with Porter’s observation that Coltrane’s focus was to express the meaning of every word in the psalm through music (“serene on the word ‘beautiful,’ shouting out ‘He will always be'”). You hear a range of moods in his “voice,” but the entire recitation reflects a passionate sincerity tempered by humility. You get the feeling that Coltrane wants all of us to have this kind of awakening, to share in his joy, to revel in the essential unity of all things.
His fellow musicians allow Coltrane to have his moment, filling the background with cymbal splashes, timpani, basic and contrasting piano chords and soft bass lines that never distract the listener from the sheer beauty—the sheer humanity—of Coltrane’s recitation. I find “Psalm” a remarkably soothing and reassuring piece, a perfect ending to the story of an authentic spiritual journey.
And I do believe his journey was authentic and real, despite my discomfort with his references to “God” in the poem and his classification of “God” as masculine. I relate far more easily to the language contained in the mission of the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco: “To paint the globe with the message of A Love Supreme, and in doing so promote global unity, peace on earth, and knowledge of the one true living God.” And I really identify with the sentiments expressed in their coronavirus message explaining the suspension of weekly church services: “It has never been more crucial for humanity to attain to the blessed state of Coltrane Consciousness, and indeed the struggle continues!”
I don’t know if the pandemic will teach us to appreciate the wonder of life and draw closer to each other or will be exploited by those in power to further divide us. I could see it going either way—either the virus will expose current power structures as inefficient, wasteful and fraudulent, or the people in power will capitalize on our fears to hasten our self-destruction. All I know for certain is that we will be listening to A Love Supreme every morning long after the restrictions have been lifted to remind us that we are all of the same spirit.
Following Crumbs to Thelonious Monk
I started taking piano and flute lessons when I was nine years old. My mother screened about a dozen suitors and found a piano teacher who shared her passions for Schubert and Liszt, and a flute teacher who idolized Jean-Pierre Rampal and Yusef Lateef.
Flute lessons were Tuesday evenings and I always looked forward to them because the teacher liked to shake things up and always picked interesting pieces from jazz and rock composers for me to learn. My piano teacher took the opposite approach, plying me with studies, exercises and fragments of larger classical pieces that I would play over and over again until I got them right. I understood that he was trying to train my fingers and feet to respond to the various challenges posed by a score, but the experience of never learning a whole sonata or concerto was getting to be a drag by the time I turned fourteen. I was fast outgrowing the anal little girl who demanded a sense of order in the world and becoming a teenager with enormous cravings for sensual experiences of all kinds, including sensual music. All week I’d be blasting punk rock into my auditory canals, then on Saturday mornings I’d have to go play one-sixth of the first movement of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D fucking minor over and over for ninety minutes.
I came home one Saturday after a lesson where I had to play twenty bars of the first movement of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat fucking major ad infinitum to improve my phrasing on the lower part of the keyboard and opened the door to find my father thumbing through his record library. “Hey, Sunshine, how’s it going?” he greeted me. “Fucking great, dad, just fucking great,” I responded, flopping myself on the couch. “Whoa! Sounds like you could use a little pick-me-up!” “Yeah, sure dad,” I said closing my eyes and trying to tune out his irritating cheerfulness so I could thoroughly enjoy a delicious moment of teenage angst over the injustice of it all.
He started flipping through the jazz section, pulled out the record you see pictured above and gently lowered the needle onto the disc. In about thirty seconds I sat bolt upright and demanded to know who on earth was playing that piano.
“That, Little Sunshine, is Thelonious Monk,” he replied.
“Start it again!” I said with excitement. He ignored my rudeness and happily complied while I lay back down on the couch, closed my eyes and opened my ears as wide as they could go.
My parents had probably played this album a hundred times before but it failed to grab my attention until that moment. I’d never heard anyone do what Monk was doing. It was like he decided he’d make up his own rules as he went along, then break those rules and create new ones. That was so unlike my piano lesson experience that it took me a while to get the classical paradigm out of my head and stop expecting the notes to fall where they were supposed to fall. There was one moment where I started giggling because whatever Monk did at that moment was so surprising and clever that I had to laugh at the man’s audacity.
I listened to the whole album twice that day and spent the rest of the week replaying passages in my head. By the time my weekly piano lesson rolled around, I was ready to challenge the musical establishment.
We started the lesson and my teacher noticed that I was rushing the Liszt piece (not easy to do, because that sucker is fast and I’m no Martha Argerich). I saw this as my opportunity to open negotiations.
“You know, I’m kind of getting tired of this stuff. What I really want is to learn how to play like Thelonious Monk.”
He cocked his head and opened his eyes wide, like a dog trying to understand something unintelligible. For a minute I thought he was going to give me the lecture of a lifetime, but when he broke his gaze he gave me a sad little smile and began to shake his head.
“I cannot teach you that. That music comes from the spirit, not a score. It is genius.”
I was shocked. “You’re a Monk fan?” He nodded and said, “But I know I could never hope to play like him. I am too . . . bound by the rules, bound by time . . . ”
Though we never left the classics entirely, we agreed that we’d split the ninety minutes into sixty classical and thirty jazz. We started with Ellington, went backwards to pick up stride, then returned to Duke and Art Tatum. We got our feet wet with postwar modern with John Lewis, then gave Monk a shot and failed miserably. You could tell what the piece was, but it sure didn’t sound the way Monk played it. He may be the second-most recorded jazz composer after Ellington, but no one ever covers Monk and winds up sounding like Monk.
By then it was time for me to head off to college, and that’s when my musical training ended. I still play a little, but now I only use the piano when I want to understand a piece of music that intrigues me. I find nothing more intriguing than the music of Thelonious Monk, so every now and then I’ll take a short passage and try to deconstruct it without bothering to attempt to imitate his approach to the piano. The words “improvisational” and “idiosyncratic” don’t begin to describe it, and they’re not very helpful adjectives because they make his music sound inaccessible and esoteric.
Let’s try this. When Monk looked at the keyboard, he didn’t see white keys and black keys, but infinite possibilities. When he played a piece, he heard not only the basic rhythm but infinite possibilities between the beats. When he looked at the piano as a percussion instrument, he saw infinite possibilities in the application of force. Monk took Henry Miller’s advice to heart: “Why get up and repeat yesterday’s song-and dance?” He had a deep understanding of the way music “should be” played, but believed that replicating the “should be” was a drag. More than any musician, Monk took the word “play” very literally, and he is by far the most playful musician I’ve ever heard. His music may be sophisticated, but it often captures the spontaneous exuberance of a child.
Many people thought he was crazy, and during his lifetime he was misdiagnosed by several so-called psychiatric experts. Many great artists have been classified as insane to some degree, a pattern that says more about society’s inability to embrace creativity and individuality and its decrepit belief in a state called “normal” than it does about the true nature of the artist, or any other human being for that matter. People have always had a problem with those who are different, even with those whose different natures harm no one. Monk had his “strange” moods, his irrepressible urges to get up from his piano to do little dances or leave the stage during performances, and he could be either “overly” communicative or “withdrawn.” I put quotes around all those adjectives because they reflect the negative judgments of people incapable of empathy and of understanding behavior that does not fall under their definition of “normal.” I would imagine that living in such a world made life problematic for Thelonious Monk, and he must have suffered to some degree as a result of that alienation. What I admire about him is his refusal to be limited by convention in his pursuit of imaginative possibilities.
Breaking the rules and norms in any field of endeavor is likely to result in accusations of insanity . . . until the breakthrough becomes “normal” and the artist or the visionary are then celebrated for their courage, usually after years of suffering or their death. I wish the human race would evolve to the point where we can just skip the crucifixions and the stonings and recognize creative insight as a blessing, not a curse.
If you look at Monk’s career, you’ll see that he played with all the big names in the postwar era: Parker, Gillespie, Christian, Clarke, Hawkins, Davis and Coltrane. To what extent they played with him is up for debate. Monk was problematic as a supporting pianist because he liked following whatever trail of musical crumbs he found in the piece, a tendency that unnerved many a soloist he supported. Coltrane shook his head and learned to let Monk be Monk; Miles Davis and Monk sometimes let their tempers boil over. Monk’s intuitive impulses and obvious originality demanded that he become the leader, but to do that he needed a group of supporting musicians who could ride the unexpected waves he would leave in his wake. He finally found the right lineup with Charlie Rouse (tenor sax), John Ore (bass) and Frankie Dunlop (drums). When they recorded Monk’s Dream, they had been with Monk for a couple of years, so the combo was well-versed in dealing with the unexpected.
Monk’s Dream was Monk’s first album for Columbia Records. Jazz purists will point you in the direction of his recordings for Prestige and Riverside, but this is the best place to start. Several of these pieces can be found on earlier recordings that are deservedly cherished by many fans. Part of what makes Monk’s Dream more accessible to the curious listener is that Monk was working with Teo Macero, the man who produced Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and one of the most accomplished producers of his time.
The title track opens the album, the piece that inspired me to do battle with the classical approach to music. I love playing “Monk’s Dream (Take 8)” for people who are completely unfamiliar with Thelonious Monk, for the invariable initial reaction is, “Does this guy know how to fucking play?” I shush them and tell them to keep listening, and about halfway through they start to feel it. The first forty or so seconds feature Monk over a light drum and bass backing, riffing off a cheery little motif. What unnerves people is that as he works the motif and runs through the melody, Monk inserts off-beat nanosecond delays in the rhythm that give the impression that his hands could have used more warm-up time. After a while it hits you that his approach is deliberate: unpredictable rhythms, surprising runs out of nowhere, stops and hesitations, subtle and surprising variations of the theme. Take Coltrane’s advice and listen to the bass player to provide a foundation and the experience will begin to come together; John Ore is solid. You’ll also notice that Frankie Dunlop is free-flowing along with Monk and he sounds nice and loose back there on the kit. When Charlie Rouse comes in for his sax solo, you can hear that he’s feeling it, too.
Monk “accompanies” Charlie, but it’s not like any accompaniment you’ve ever heard; it’s like he’s calling up all possible rhythmic and chord combinations that could possibly fit what Charlie is doing, no matter how bizarre they may appear at first blush. I feel almost abandoned when Monk steps back and lets the rest of the combo take over, but it does give them the opportunity to show that they know how to swing and they’re all first-rate musicians. Monk returns with what sounds like a new melodic theme, but no, you hear the familiar motif thrown in the mix and you begin to appreciate how much this man can create from a single musical idea. Even with all the variation throughout the song, the basic motif remains the centerpiece, but now you’ve learned that you have all these new and wonderful places to go! Just to show he can do it, Monk and Charlie play the main theme together for a minute at the end, and while Monk can’t help himself from taking a liberty here and there, the duet is spot on. The CD release features Take 3 as a bonus track, with a shortened intro by Monk and more duet time with Charlie Rouse in the opening minutes; it’s worth a good listen because Monk tries a different set of possibilities, underscoring the constant creativity in his approach to music.
“Body and Soul” is the jazz classic everyone has covered, from Louis Armstrong to Billie Holliday to John Coltrane. My favorite vocal version is Ella Fitzgerald’s, but the most influential was Coleman Hawkins’ 1939 version where he ignores the original melody and improvises over the chord progression. He drops a few hints to let the listening audience know it’s still “Body and Soul,” but on a higher level, he freed the soloist to discover additional melodic possibilities in a song. Thelonious Monk didn’t need to be told to create new possibilities with anything he touched, and accordingly his version is a fascinating mix of the core song (very recognizable in the opening passages) and a deconstruction/reconstruction of the melody to give it new life. There’s one gorgeous passage where the pauses between notes increase and both rhythm and melody seem suspended in mid-air. Suddenly Monk ends the suspense with a dramatic descending sweep starting in the upper range and moving down a few octaves, then returns to re-establish the dominant left-hand rhythm. You might not be able to dance to this version of “Body and Soul, ” but it is most definitely an engrossing experience.
“Bright Mississippi” is really “Sweet Georgia Brown,” a ten-minute opportunity for the combo to swing to a more traditional rhythmic pattern. Charlie Rouse has a great time blowing that sax in a five-minute solo, like he’s trying to motivate a nightclub full of dancers in their finest suits and satin dresses to get up and shake their fannies. When Monk comes in about midway through the song, you can tell he’s got the groove, and his hands spend a lot of time at the upper end of the keyboard in a dazzling performance reminiscent of the moments when a great blues or rock guitarist bends those blue notes way up on the fretboard. In the background, John Ore is laying down absolutely flawless bass support and once again, Frankie Dunlop plays it loose and full of energy. The ten-minute length might put off listeners who have learned to be skeptical of long songs by having been bored to tears by the overwrought progressive rock opus that rarely delivers the goods, but this song flies by and never loses energy.
“Five Spot Blues” is a tighter version of “Blues Five Spot,” which appeared previously as a live recording on the Riverside album Misterioso. Tighter does not always translate into “better” or “more interesting,” and Johnny Griffin’s sax work on that album was exceptional. Monk is still pretty hot, mixing up the dynamics with more subtlety during Charlie’s sax solo. “Bolivar Blues” appeared under a different title on another Riverside album, Brilliant Corners, but in a much slower tempo with the amazing Sonny Rollins on tenor sax. To me, they’re two completely different pieces based on the same motif, with Monk’s intro containing clear signs of boogie-woogie on this version, setting a completely different mood. The original is late-night sexy, lasts for over thirteen glorious minutes and featured a combo of Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry and Ernie Henry. If you’re in the mood for quirky-cheerful, go with the Monk’s Dream version; if you’re in the mood for a perfect accompaniment to foreplay, go with the original.
Monk covered “Just a Gigolo” twice before this version, on Thelonious Monk Trio for Prestige and Misterioso. In all three versions, he brings out the melody and the musical subtext with utter brilliance, though I prefer this version because the recording quality better captures the reflective mood in the clearer overtones. It’s interesting to compare different interpretations by different artists, as this song has been covered by Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, Louis Prima, David Lee Roth (!) and Oscar Peterson. The original is of Austrian origin, written in the 1920’s during the period of corruption and decline of post-WWI Europe; a proud hussar is reduced to selling himself as a hired dancer, with implications that he offers add-on services at the right price. Oscar Peterson’s interpretation is the most dramatic and intense of the lot, a thundering performance that captures the underlying social tensions that will explode into the insanity of 1930’s Europe. Bing Crosby’s is suitably laid-back and threadbare, rather like his rendition of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” without the indignation. Louis Prima and David Lee Roth thought of themselves as “good time guys” in the role, which trivializes the character. Personally, I think Armstrong and Monk nailed it. Both Louis with his vocal and Monk on the ivories capture the anguish of the man seeing the prime of his life pissed away in circumstances beyond his control, looking to the future without the slightest glimmer of hope. Monk creates a world of inner tension with his percussive ability while painting a façade of elegance with his sensitive handling of the melody; you can easily picture this piece playing over a scene from the film of the gigolo’s life story as he dances mechanically, awkwardly and sadly over the floor. The ending flourishes are both beautiful and deeply ironic. Here’s a rare filmed performance of “Just a Gigolo”; I love the body language that illustrates so well how Monk experienced music:
“Bye-Ya” dates back to Thelonious Monk Trio as well, and in this case I have to go with the original, a free-flowing Latin-tinged bash that throbs with excitement. This version is a bit more polished and subdued; nice, but not up to the standard of the Prestige original. Much more interesting is Monk’s transformation of the Guy Lombardo hit, “Sweet and Lovely.” It constantly amazes me what the modern jazz greats did with rather pedestrian standards, for when I listen The Sound of Music version of “My Favorite Things,” I think “yuck!” and never want to hear that fucking song again as long as I live. Fortunately, Coltrane could see possibilities where I see fluff, and his translation makes the song come alive. Monk turns this rather stiff piece of music into something that sounds more like a genuine appreciation of female beauty than a convention-enforcing reminder to young women to stay cute and keep your mouth shut. Charlie Rouse stars in this piece with a long solo that sounds like he’s recalling the faces of all the beautiful women he’s ever known in his life. I love the way Charlie comps Monk with single sustained notes when it’s Monk’s turn to solo in the closing segment; it feels like two males bonding over scotch and memories of fine women as the lights dim and the camera fades to black.
You will hear all kinds of pejorative adjectives to describe Monk: dissonant, angled, unruly, chaotic. Sometimes his music can make you feel like you’re lost in a cubist painting trying to put the pieces together. What you need to realize is that you’re hearing it as disjointed and disconnected because of your go-to musical paradigm, whether that’s verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus pop, dance music or Mozart. Once you let go of those prejudices and listen to the sounds, rhythms and spaces that sprung from the spirit of Thelonious Monk, you’ll begin to realize that music doesn’t have to conform to the rules and that our music today would be so much richer if musicians would look beyond the formulas for new possibilities. They may never reach Monk’s level of improvisational and compositional brilliance, but it would sure make music a lot more interesting than it is at present.