Ellis Meets Monk (Finally)

In the liner notes to his Thelonious Monk tribute, Ellis Marsalis admits that there was a time he saw Monk’s music as an “anomaly.” He also admits to being in awe of the man, too self-conscious to introduce himself to Monk once upon a time at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. It was the only chance the pianists had to meet.

Ellis isn’t the only one who had trouble getting with Thelonious (reviewer admits a youthful inability to catch on here). Monk was so unique, so eclectic that it was hard to judge him against the norm. Once one tuned in to what he did, it became hard to hear anything else.

Marsalis finishes his notes saying that this collection represents his discovery of and “profound respect” for things Thelonious. You wouldn’t think an old smoothie like the elder Marsalis would be an apt interpreter of Monk’s quirky tunes. But he is. That’s because those opening assumptions—that Monk’s music is quirky and that Marsalis plays in a smooth, older style—aren’t necessarily true. There’s no denying that Monk had a gritty sense of melody and a fondness for eclectic chord progressions, oblong rhythms and harmonic hi-jinx. Yet distilled or not, Monk’s music can be extremely beautiful. You can hear anybody, including its composer, do “Round Midnight” and know it’s true. “Straight, No Chaser” isn’t a chestnut for nothing.

Marsalis, contrary to reputation, continues to evolve. Often dismissed as father of talented offspring and a “local” musician, the pianist deserves respect for a savvy style at the keyboard and skill for cultivating combos. This quartet, with son Jason on drums, bassist Jason Stewart and saxophonist Derek Douget, does the family name proud, presenting no-nonsense renditions of Monk’s best known numbers while injecting enough personality to make it stand out. Marsalis’ piano is svelte, knowing and surprisingly inventive, something akin to Sonny Rollins’ later playing on tenor. Like Rollins, he’s a master at inserting quotes from other numbers. In “Jackie-ing” he drops the “shocking glimpse of stocking” line from “Anything Goes.” In a case of Monk in Monk, he quotes “Well You Needn’t” during “Epistrophy.” His solo on “Ruby, My Dear” pegs him as a young-at-heart romantic even if he’s old enough to be your grandfather. He’s at ease on “Monk’s Mood,” holding hands with the melody in a devoted way.

The biggest surprise here is saxophonist Douget. Playing both tenor and soprano, Douget is the quartet member closest to Monk’s spirit. He pops, preens and pauses, occasionally working up a head of steam that seems unstoppable. You never quite get comfortable while he’s playing (and that’s a good thing). He crafts his attack to the song, getting all wobbly and unpredictable on “Crepuscule with Nellie,” melodic and thoughtful on “Ruby, My Dear.” Drummer Jason Marsalis speaks to Monk’s funkiness, finding groove that lets soloists do as they will. (The drummer writes in his liner notes “…if you take any of Monk’s tunes…and put a funk beat on top of the melody, the melody will fit the rhythm of the beat.”) His solos roll on easily grasped accents and he’s alert, underscoring his band mates’ inventions as he does con cymbal when Ellis drops some “Sweet Georgia Brown” into “Rhythm-a ning.” Stewart provides counterpoint to this groove, coasting along in his own beat-minded way.

The group is most Monk-like on “Teo,” Jason’s cymbal pop breaking up the theme before he gets behind the rhythm and swings it like a pocket watch on a chain. On “Light Blue,” probably the least familiar of the cuts here, Marsalis smooths over Monk’s rough edges, the edges that give the song a certain attractive grit, and lets the gold settle while inserting nuggets from other tunes. Marsalis may make nothing new out of Monk’s music. But he does remind us how wonderful it all is.—Cabbage Rabbit

ELLIS MARSALIS, An Open Letter To Thelonious, Elm Records

He’s No Keith Jarrett

I once had a minor tiff with Brad Mehldau, an exchange of words in the pages of the L.A. Weekly that, I hope, ended up serving us both well. It started when I wrote up a plug for a rare Keith Jarrett appearance, saying that Jarrett had influenced a generation of young musicians. For proof one needed to look no further than Mehldau’s recorded rendition of “Blame It on My Youth”

BRAD MEHLDAU TRIO LIVE, Nonesuch Records

I once had a minor tiff with Brad Mehldau, an exchange of words in the pages of the L.A. Weekly that, I hope, ended up serving us both well. It started when I wrote up a plug for a rare Keith Jarrett appearance, saying that Jarrett had influenced a generation of young musicians. For proof one needed to look no further than Mehldau’s recorded rendition of “Blame It on My Youth” and compare it to Jarrett’s. Mehldau, of course, didn’t like the insinuation that he had mined Jarrett’s work—he claimed to have never heard Keith play “Blame It On My Youth”—and wrote a pointed letter to the editor saying as much, taking the time to belittle some of the other things I’d said in the Jarrett piece, including the fact that for me listening to the pianist and his trio over the years had become a near-religious experience.

Mehldau was playing the following week at LA’s Café Largo and the appearance gave me the opportunity to respond while making him the subject of my jazz pick column. I stuck to my contention that there were a lot of similarities even if they were accidental in Jarrett and Meldau’s takes on “Blame It on My Youth” (maybe the pointed melancholy of Oscar Levant’s lament made for a collusion of mood and approach). And, I argued, it wasn’t such a bad or unusual thing, especially for us godless sorts, to find inspiration, meaning and yes, reason to live in music as wonderful as Jarrett and Mehldau’s.

All (apparently) was forgiven—the keyboardist certainly had larger considerations in his life than what some alternative rag journalist had said about him—and we had a nice chat between sets one Sunday afternoon at a downtown concert sponsored by the Da Camera Society. Mehldau even granted me an interview a year or so later in which he espoused intelligently on his direction. The pianist is known to pontificate about art and his music. Some of his liner notes go to great academic lengths while dropping the names like Goethe, Foucault and Thomas Mann. While they may seem a little overblown at times, these insights are revealing. His notes to House on the Hill are one of the best explanations of the jazz form’s theme-and-variation concept we’ve read (you can find it here [http://www.bradmehldau.com/writing/index.html#]) and Mehldau continues to practice what he preaches. That he has a good intellectual understanding of what he does is a refreshing and educational change from what passes as exposition and criticism of art of any sort (this screed included).

I bring up the Jarrett story to make a similar, hopefully less foolish, Keith-and-Brad comparison. It strikes us that Mehldau is his generation’s Jarrett. The comparison is not so much musical–despite “Blame It on My Youth”–as situational. Both have a long-standing trio (drummer Jeff Ballard replaced Jorge Rossy in 2005) making the evolution of interplay between the three men as interesting as any other component. Both have impeccable musical tastes and an ability to do almost anything they like on the keyboard (which may be truer in Mehldau’s case, Jarrett’s forays into classical music aside). Both attracted young audiences, Jarrett in the ‘70s with his extended solo excursions, Mehldau with his renditions of alt-rock music and a certain rumpled hipster cachet which comes to him without him really trying. This is just the kind of fan recruitment that the so-called jazz world needs to maintain its audience, especially now. That Mehldau seems to do this without compromise—and what he makes of “pop” tunes isn’t a compromise—is all the more to his credit.

Brad Mehldau Trio Live makes Mehldau’s familiar case for opening up the jazz canon to worthy contemporary music even as it establishes a new level of greatness for the trio. (No, those cover photos aren’t of The Village Vanguard where the discs were recorded in October of 2006.) Who else could follow a Soundgarden tune with one by 1930s-era swing band leader Ray Noble and get away with it? Mehldau’s trio is able to pull this kind of thing off by finding a rhythmic core to the music and relating it directly to its mood. They get straight to the heart of a melody and then mess mightily with it (unlike the bits-and-pieces technique Jarrett uses). That they develop all this during the variation part of their theme-and-variation approach makes listening to the trio something akin to reading a good novel. This is one of improvisational music’s great pleasures: it’s as if you can follow what’s going on in their minds as you listen to what’s coming from their hands.

Trio Live gets right into this modus with Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” a rhythmically accessible way to enter the recording. Mehldau’s harmonically kinky assertions stretched across Larry Grenadier’s pin-point bass groove. Mehldau compiles lines on a descending left-hand line and his improv strengthens as it goes along, winding tighter and tighter on Ballard’s irresistible groove. Mehldau’s a master of resolution, able to find his way out of a tight spot as coolly as some action character in a spy thriller. Here it happens so seamlessly that you don’t see the bridge coming until he’s crossing it.

The rest of this two-disc set mixes jazz standards—“More Than You Know”, the John Coltrane vehicle “Countdown”—with Mehldau originals. Unlike Jarrett’s often droning originals, Mehldau pushes his own compositions all over the room, taking them to unexpected corners, stirring up dust and diamonds. Moods vary. There’s the quick and insistent “Ruby’s Rub,” the swing and grace of “B-Flat Waltz,” the romance and intimacy of “Secret Beach.” Mehldau’s sharp reading of Jimmy Heath’s “C.T.A.” cuts new meat from its bop-bones. If Mehldau’s solos seem to go on too long (see liner notes above), one must remember that the same thing was said of John Coltrane, especially in live performance. Like Coltrane, Mehldau has things to get off his chest.

The other comparison Mehldau has garnered, especially early in his career, was to Bill Evans. This came from his audible sensitivity, a quality lacking in the work of many emerging pianists, rather than any stylistic comparisons to Evans. That Mehldau is sensitive, thoughtful and melodically inventive is old news. Here, he finds beauty in a soft touch, melodic sense in even the roughest handling. His approach to “The Very Thought Of You” convinces one, true or not, that this guy knows the depths of love. No you wouldn’t and shouldn’t confuse Brad Meldau’s work with Jarrett’s (guilty) or anyone else’s. We wouldn’t be the first to say there’s no one like him. Highly recommended. –Cabbage Rabbit

Sound and Fury

Jazz critics have made a living declaring that John Coltrane was the most influential saxophonist of the modern jazz era. But listen to the current crop of practicing sax players and very few of them sound like Coltrane. In fact, saxophonist go out of their way to avoid such comparisons. The veteran tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd was sorely angered when the jazz critic of The Los Angeles Times repeatedly claimed he sounded like Coltrane. Coltrane’s son, the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, studiously went about avoiding comparisons to his father when he first started out.

The Coltrane influence transcends sound. His discipline, his devotion to craft, his unending search and constantly evolving individuality; these are traits every saxophonist of worth aspires to. But it’s exactly that desire to have a distinct sound—a sound instantly recognizable as their own, as Coltrane’s is instantly recognizable as his–that keeps them from imitating the jazz giant. Occasionally, saxophonists will emulate the Coltrane approach in a tribute performance, as the former McCoy Tyner sideman Azar Lawrence did last year on an excellent recording Legacy and Music Of John Coltrane (Tyner was Coltrane’s long-term pianist). Lawrence not only mimics Coltrane’s sound on the instrument, he recreates his idol’s approach to group dynamics and shared discovery. It’s at once a music of joy and fury, enlightening rather than entertaining.

Ben Ratliff states early on in his study Coltrane: The Story of a Sound that his subject is the most influential jazz musician of the modern era. Then he spends the rest of the book explaining how, tracing the evolution of his music in the book’s first half and its influences in the second. And while Ratliff seems to avoid the “most influential” claim when it comes to sound (he does list a string of names in a long paragraph that sprung from the Coltrane school, including Lawrence’s) he makes a strong case that Coltrane changed the way musicians approach the music. The result is the most important consideration of the jazz giant to date.

It’s long been thought that Coltrane was a product of his times, that he was strongly influenced by race issues and the political turmoil of the late 1950s and early ‘60s. To an extent, this was true. But Ratliff sees Coltrane’s music more as a spiritual quest than a reaction to the times. Coltrane was largely uninterested in the day-to-day trivia, as Ratliff points out in the chapter “Who’s Willie Mays?” From the beginning he was immersed in the music. He took influences from a host of unexpected sources: trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonists Earl Bostic, Johnny Hodges and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. But at some point, roughly in the 1950s when he was touring with Miles Davis, Coltrane decided he needed to do more than digest the legacy of the music. He had to extend it.

Coltrane’s long solos, sometimes based on a single chord, and the droning, polyrhythmic backdrops over which they were played, not only had spiritual roots but were emblematic of spiritual search and discovery. Ratliff shows how some embraced this approach. He quotes new music composer Steve Reich who makes favorable comparisons between Coltrane’s “Africa/Brass” to Junior Walker’s “Shotgun,” both embracing “harmonic stasis” by sticking to a single chord. Allaudin (Bill) Mathieu finds Coltrane’s complexity reductionist, in a class with the old blues shouters “who after all had the same modal strategy –five notes.” Not everyone finds this simplicity enamoring. Of Coltrane’s only popular hit, “My Favorite Things,” composer-trombonist Bob Brookmeyer complains, “a nice Broadway song and then soprano for an hour? Unnh!”

Ratliff, jazz critic for The New York Times, has a good way of explaining musical form and theory for the uninitiated, even as he drops terms like lydian mode. His attempts to define sound in words—always a difficult task for the music writer—usually succeed though sometimes with opposite effect. The sound of Coltrane’s fellow tenor player and band member Pharoah Saunders is described as, “ugly challenges of squelched and shrieking sounds, and hoarse, brawny tours…” When Ratliff speaks of Coltrane’s tone as “undercooked” you’re not sure that he means “raw” or “rare.”

Jazz writers are well known to make cross-genre comparisons (think of Miles being compared to Picasso) and Ratliff makes his share, calling Coltrane at one point an “American romantic” like Johnny Cash, Clint Eastwood and Walt Whitman. He quotes the poet Robert Lowell to justify Coltrane’s long solos as “monotony of the sublime” in a passage that also brings up Melville, Milton and Edmund Burke. This may seem like over-reaching but the most fantastic claim, made by guitarist Sonny Sharrock is not: “Trane had to die, man. Musically, anyway, to release everybody else.” In that sense, Coltrane was more than an influence on music. He was the savior.—Cabbage Rabbit

Coltrane: The Story of a Sound by Ben Ratliff; Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, hardback, 250 pages, $24

A version of this review first appeared in the IE Weekly