Archive for May, 2011

The Genius of Two: Heiner Stadler’s “Tribute to Bird and Monk”

The importance to modern jazz of the contributions from both Charlie “Bird” Parker (1920-1955) and Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-1982) can never be overstated. Both furthered the evolution of the art form, Bird with inspiring and freeing up generations of improvisatory soloists, Monk with both his highly individualized playing and compositions; some of which have become a part of jazz’s lexicon.
The passage of time has had several marked effects upon both their legacies. With Bird there is one of generations, the further forward we move in time the less direct influence he seems to have in regards to inspiration on young musicians. The players Bird inspired or even the disciples of the disciples are more often cited as major influences. It is interesting though that despite this Bird’s reputation and mythos has not fallen by the wayside as happened with other once important musicians such as Chu Berry (1908-1941), Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969) or Illinois Jacquet (1922-2004). It was not just the fluidic space his soloing occupied but the overall conceptions of soloing that made Bird stand out; he radically reworked the nature of soloing. And now, the then radical notions of bop have become accepted standards. The “next” Bird would have to not be as fleet of fingers but come up with his own radical departure. There are some, such as Eric Dolphy (1928-1964) who arguably could be said to be heir apparent. He faces the disadvantage of leaving behind a powerful body of work but done in all too brief a time. Also, the possible excitement his work might have caused was back then tempered by all the other innovations going on at a time when jazz was once again in a state of flux and if one were to read archived magazines and newspapers, the curse of all innovators, a faction of the public who did not understand what he was doing.
Monk’s reputation and totemic power has not dipped in the way that Bird’s has, possibly because he was around much longer. Instead Monk has been reduced to an almost shorthand by musicians and journalists, now being described as the purveyor of elliptical rhythms and a wry playfulness. For sure those were aspects of his makeup but like all artists who further and add to the evolution of their medium what somewhat became forgotten once the initial struggle to gain exposure and acceptance for their work is achieved is the bravery involved in such a struggle.
Although sui generis the likes of which had not previously been seen, both artists used components from what had come before them, built off of and combined with their own ideas to form distinctly original voices.
With Monk, when covering one of his compositions other composers and musicians have taken what they wanted from the inner workings of a song, to emphasize their idea of Monk and create a sort of collaborative piece where Monk is ultimately deferred to. There are deconstructions, “in the style of”, re-imaginings and original compositions in honor of Monk which utilize harmonic or rhythmic components but overall when doing a Monk song there is very little directly building off of to be found.
By the late 70’s jazz had become marginalized. Post big band “modern jazz” was no longer the new thing, the even more recent free genre had lost some of its luster. Rock had become the music of youth and rebellion and straight out acoustic jazz became lost in the shuffle, faced in the market place with a cold shoulder and general disinterest. The jazz that still was receiving interest was a sort of hybrid, fused with rock and roll. Even when someone like Miles Davis embraced this fusion there was not the sense of new branches being grafted onto the family tree of jazz. Things were bleak with non-fusion artists finding themselves in a sort of no man’s land. As frustrating as this was to artists not wanting to go in the direction then en vogue, this time of commercial “failure” did free some up to further explore and stretch forms as record sales were no longer a major factor. In small clubs, parts of Europe and the downtown loft scene (NYC) artists could explore.
Heiner Stadler (b. 1942) is a German arranger/composer/musician. He moved to New York City in the mid sixties where he became involved with the modern classical composers on the scene (John Cage, Meredith Monk et al) while also producing concerts by electric bluesmen such as Albert King and John Lee Hooker. Heiner seems to have fully absorbed Duke Ellington’s maxim that there are only two types of music, good and bad, not worrying about genre stylistic restrictions. His album can said to be a tribute to these two titans in the most meaningful way, using the trails which they blazed as a starting point to further expand upon. His arrangements mixing in his affection for the blues, an important element of jazz’s DNA no matter the era and aspects of modern classical which allows for a foreword looking complexity that embraces both Europe and America.
The ensemble is a sextet expanded to a septet with the addition of Warren Smith on tympani for two tracks.
The program is made up of six songs, three from each artist. Two of the Bird songs are lesser known which further adds to the compelling newness of the album’s overall feel.
The first track is a lesser known Bird tune “Air Conditioning”. This is a great choice as while listening there is no initial distraction of going down a mental list of how part of the bop cannon has been altered or added to. It starts as a lot of early bop tunes did, with the horns playing in unison and fast. Stanley Cowell (b 1941) on piano does staccato jabs which serve to add further over all density to what is already being established by the rhythm section. Having been on the bandstand with Max Roach, Bobby Hutcherson and Roland Kirk his playing has a rhythmic, percussive effect to it with a clear, ringing cadence. His past band affiliations have made him comfortable with compositions and musicians who straddle the fence between various genres.
Over the steady pulse of the rhythm section and cascading piano runs George Lewis’s (1952) trombone solos. His playing is rapid but without ever losing articulation. There is a cerebral aspect to George’s playing but not at the cost of the fire.
On paper, Thad Jones (1923-1986) would seem an odd choice to help man the front line. This musician/arranger/composer first came to the publics’ conscious as a member of Count Basie’s New Testament Band where he shared soloing duties and did some arranging. This band had intricate arrangements, modern for their time. In 1965 he formed The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. It has been said that this band brought big band into the modern age. In some ways it served as a precursor to this album in featuring dense intricate pieces incorporating elements from a diverse collection of styles. The fact that he is also an arranger gives his playing an inherent understanding; the idiom of the piece never gets in his way. He plays his horn with a punchy, aggressive tone that has a sort of “free” feel to it. His solo is surprisingly short but seems to feed multi-reedist George Adams (1940-1992) here soloing on tenor. His solo is the one which adheres closest to the free jazz tenets yet still possess some recognizable blue(s) tinge. George spent time with Gil Evans, one of third stream genres progenitors and with Charles Mingus who also created a un-creditited genre (usually lumped into big band, free or third stream) where he had suite like pieces that incorporated both blues and modern elements of discordance within a score while also leaving room for the soloists to improvise. Having been in two such forward thinking ensembles has allowed George to be able to play within any complex framework with soul.
Reggie Workman’s (b 1937) bass initially has an articulated rumble which serves to sort of anchor the piece, serving as a foundation upon which the other musician can build. Like the rest of the musicians on this date his experience is one of having served in some progressive minded ensembles which like his band mate here Thad Jones, included a stint with Thelonious Monk himself. Towards the end of the song there are a number of bass pulse points, then all the other instruments drop away leaving the stark effect of a bass playing solo over the course of which there are buoyant drones that give way to beautiful almost viol like bowing.
Drummer Lenny White (1949) first made his bones on Miles Davis’ ground breaking Bitches Brew (1970). He was a great admirer of Miles’ previous drummer Tony Williams and on this piece shows himself to be cut from the same cloth as he offers up his own take on the seemingly tireless locomotion that was so much Tony’s forte. The reemergence of the drums signals a return to the layers of other instrumental voices. The bass goes back to its walking and the song ends as it began. To know a song then hear a cover, part of the enjoyment to be had is seeing how a piece is changed, this introductory piece shows that one need not be familiar with an existing version of a work to get pleasure from it.
Within the body of his oeuvre Monk performed “Misterioso” many times. There were lots of variations to how he presented it which depended upon both his band and the venue/record date but the one constant is the ascending/descending melodic riff. With this version it is present, starting out the piece below percussive bursts and sort of staggered as a call and response between trumpet and sax with piano joining in and creating a of going against the tide, churning feel. The familiar melody is dissolved, giving way to a percussion duet which could be an aural stand in for the thunderous presence of one of Stravinski’s pagan sages. Over the rolling drums the piano offers bits of the familiar theme as if clipped from a score, more of the familiar notes are heard but then the tempo is sped up and experimented with. Almost as a north star point of reference the theme is again presented this time over the cacophony of percussion by horn and saxophone just slightly out of synch before everything drops away to give rise to lone bass. There is a singing quality to the bass solo interspersed with some drones which have an almost electric sounding cadence in their sustain. Towards the end of its solo statement the bass is bowed in its upper register sounding almost like a morin khuur with its neighing characteristic.
Throughout the piece the mood is kept the same, a sort of modern discordance but the adding and subtracting of layers keeps it from becoming stale. The slowed down section immediately following the bass solo allows drama to almost creep in just by having the empty spaces previously taken up by other voices or the discordance of the quicker paced sections. The song ends with a unified frenzy that gives way to a single sustained piano note that falls back into silence.
When this album was originally released it was a two record set, now on one CD and remixed by Malcolm Addey with the sound being very good. The original liner notes by Robert Palmer are reproduced along with some new ones by Howard Mandel.
What makes an album or musician important? It is their influence and contributions to their medium. But something can merely be “good” but well worth our while. Through shopping online and the modern ease of travel it has become apparent what a wide selection of jazz in every genre from every era there is to be had. It has allowed both the connoisseurs and more casual listeners to cherry pick as a sort of best of the best mentality has become pervasive. While this is not an “important” album it is very enjoyable even in the challenges it presents listeners, challenges which swim in the same stream as works by Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Edgar Varese and Gyorgy Ligeti. While this CD is not necessarily going to convert people to some of the free genres it straddles it does present an organic extension of a direction birthed from the musical freedom thought up by two of jazz’s titans all those years ago.

Thad Jones:cornet (flugelhorn on “Perhaps”)
George Adams: tenor saxophone (flute on “Perhaps”)
George Lewis: trombone
Stanley Cowell: piano
Reggie Workman: bass
Lenny White: drums
Warren Smith: timpani on “Misterioso” & “Perhaps”
Cecil Bridgewater: trumpet (replaces Thad Jones on “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues are”)

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