Recent Listening

I have a backlog of CDs that I’ve not yet mentioned here, will try to catch up a bit. Here are three recent items:

UnknownJohn Zorn: The Mysteries – Bill Frisell, guitar; Carol Emanuel, harp; Kenny Wollesen, vibraphone, chimes.

I was disappointed in this album. While the instrumentation guarantees a certain degree of prettiness – perhaps too much; and while Frisell – who is the focus here – is a master of varied guitar colors, the music itself is mostly rather square and bland, built on simplistic ostinatos. A few tracks have more rhythmic or harmonic or textural interest, but the dreaded phrase “new age” came to mind.

Unknown-1Estampies & Danses Royales – Hesperion XXI, Jordi Savall.

Instrumental music from the late 13th and early 14th centuries, in imaginative realizations, sensitively played. The flavor is rather folky, a bit heavy on percussion, and includes a good bit of improvisation. In Savall’s nice phrase, this is an example of “historically creative performance”.


imagesThe Complete Blue Note Recordings – Thelonious Monk.

George Rochberg used to complain that highly chromatic music usually ended up in some darkly expressionist emotional realm. But here’s a body of work that is often angular and chromatic, yet decidedly joyous and vital. This 4 disc set includes the classics that you heard in jazz history class, but offers a much fuller picture, including alternate takes as well an entire disc devoted to a live recording with Coltrane. Other musicians heard here include Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, Kenny Dorham, and Max Roach, to name just a few. As I have said before, those of us who write (mostly) notated music have much to learn from the classic (and contemporary) music of our composing/improvising brethren.

Freegal is Free (well, for listeners)

Are you aware of Freegal? (Their website is mysteriously sparse.) This is a digital music download service for libraries to offer their account holders. You get three downloads a week – and you select from hundreds of thousands of items in the Sony Music holdings. Now, libraries are paying for the content – and it is slightly fishy that they are buying something and giving it to you instead of lending it. I leave you to ponder that one. The upside for listeners is rather amazing. Why Sony is doing this is a headscratcher. Just today, through the Free Library of Philadelphia, I got some of the Monk Town Hall concert. The Ellington listings alone could use up your 3 per week for a couple of years (Realize that Sony holds both the Columbia and RCA catalogs – Ellington’s two principal labels). Now, it isn’t perfect – I downloaded what was supposed to be Pierre Boulez’s Rituel – and it shows up in iTunes as Rituel – but it was actually a different track from the same album. Once again it’s the classical stuff that gets screwed up, just like the pages for classical CDs on Amazon that don’t identify the pieces and composers on an album, or the weird inconsistencies of how classical pieces show up in iTunes (How many classical tracks do you have where the genre comes up as “blues”?). Anyway, you can probably download this song, appropriate for the day.

Monk, the Virtuoso

I am reading Robin D. G. Kelley’s new bio of Thelonious Monk with great pleasure. (Do visit Kelley’s site about the book for lots of great supplementary info – audio, video and prose “bonus tracks” you might say.) The book is highly detailed, and meticulously researched. If you want to know the precise date of David Amram’s 1955 arrival at New York City from Rotterdam on the ship ‘Groote Beer’, you’ll find it here in the footnotes. But the book is more than just minutiae. You’ll read about the importance of family life to Monk, and about his bipolar condition; about the challenges and pleasures of searching out the right sidemen, and about what it means to be a black artist in the United States. If you think of Monk as strictly an outsider, you’ll be set straight about just how big a star Monk was – the world tours, the cover of Time, the Downbeat poll wins. The book makes me eager to go back to the music, the sign of the best musicology.

There is one theme in the book that has given me pause – the references to Monk as a virtuoso pianist. I need to revisit the recordings, but surely Monk is not a virtuoso in the Art Tatum/Oscar Peterson/Phineas Newborn Jr. sense; not even in the Bud Powell sense of commanding florid Parker-esque bebop lines. However, a quote in the book from Hall Overton did help me get a handle on this notion. Overton refers to Monk’s “rhythmic virtuosity”. This is not a matter of dexterity, of fleet physical command of the keyboard; Monk’s pianistic virtuosity is more conceptual, more compositional.  This makes sense in light of Monk’s stature, along with Ellington and Mingus, as one of the greatest jazz composers.