Wednesday, 12 August 2009


Back in 2000 I was having lots of those millennial best conversations. I recall moaning about Waterstones failing to find space for William Faulkner among their 100 best novelists of the 20th century, and countering that slip by noting how few British writers my top 100 contained (since Joyce, Yeats, Shaw, Heaney and Beckett are Irish, and Eliot American).

As the millennium began, I felt comfortable with the idea that the artistic artist apex of the twentieth century came either when the Miles Davis quintet included John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly on saxes, or when the Coltrane quintet recorded with Roland Kirk, live at the Village Vanguard. Although the abstract expressionist artists, and indeed the beat writers, were more heavily influenced by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and the original stars of be-bop, and I was convinced that one night you might have found Kline or Pollock or Rothko or DeKooning tapping toes in the audience, alongside Burroughs, Ginsburg, Mailer, Paul Blackburn, and thus squash any claims Paris had to being the century's hub.

As the first decade of the new millennium reaches its close, it has become apparent to me that I was overlooking someone, Thelonius Monk, a feeling reinforced by listening to my birthday present from last March, the 29 November 1957 Carnegie Hall concert by the Monk Quartet with John Coltrane. The problem with Monk, when you're thinking in terms of lines of influence and development, is that he is so unique, completely idiosyncratic, that you dismiss him from the kind of widescale evaluations, in the same way that Ives, perhaps, might get sidelined in a ranking of 20th century composers. With Miles Davis you can point to three or four totally different types of music that grew out of what he did at different times; with Coltrane you can see a whole line of players following him. But Monk is doing his thing; it was influential, yes, but it was always Monk.

Sometimes I listen to Monk and think that his approach to every note, tangential, off-time, out of its academic place, is the perfect correlative to the atomic world, to non-Euclidian geometry, to particle physics, to quantum mechanics. I know that sounds pretentious, but it's true: it's as if Monk developed his music not out of logical progression from the music that came before, but from interpretation of the way the world was changing around the music. It is precisely the same feeling I see in the best of the abstract expressionist painters. The beauty of his pairing with Coltrane is to hear that most exciting and creative of sax players fitting within the Monk framework, which is never at right angles to anything, Monk as Kline perhaps, and Coltrane as Pollock, I don't know. Bud Powell is quoted in the album's notes as saying 'if I had Tatum's technique and Monk's mind, there would be no other piano players. Wait. Forget Tatum. If I had MY technique and Monk's mind, there would be no other piano players.' It's the mind.

You get a good picture of where Monk was in the years before this concert from the superb value 4-album collection on Avid, particularly on Monk Plays The Music Of Duke Ellington, in a trio with Oscar Pettiford and Kenny Clarke, where you can see his approach breaking down some of Ellington's greatest modern music. Sonny Rollins plays on two of the other three albums, though Max Roach on drums steals Brilliant Corners, and Ernie Henry's alto is fine too. The earliest album was 1952's Thelonious Monk, another trio with Art Blakey on drums (and Roach on a couple of tracks). Monk returned the favour in 1958, joining Blakey's Jazz Messengers on a record which gives you two more versions each of 'Evidence' and 'Blue Monk', both of which he plays at Carnegie Hall. Johnny Griffin on tenor would go on to play with Monk, and the fit is already obvious. I've always figured the Coltrane Village Vanguard disc for my desert island, but now I'm not so sure. At any rate, it's easy to imagine the cream of the New York scene making it to Carnegie Hall, to see that post-Thanksgiving show where the artistic elite could meet to say reet.

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hal
l (Blue Note 2005)
Thelonious Monk: Four Classic Albums (Avid Jazz 2008)
Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk (Atlantic 2002)

IRRESISTIBLE TURNTABLES: the rest of July's playlist:

Larry Murray, Sweet Country Suite (Fallout Records) a reissue of a 1970s solo album by one of Hearts & Flowers. I saw this album once in a record shop in Glasgow in January 1973, and didn't buy it because I didn't want to lug it around Europe. I had never even seen another copy until I came across this disc in a shop on Berwick St. It's country rock when that still meant something, a little rougher-edged than the great Hearts & Flowers albums (both available on one CD) but without as many memorable songs. It has Buddy Emmons on steel guitar, JD Souther and the guys who were Swampwater (and became the mark-two Burritos) and best of all Clydie King, Sherlie Matthews and Venetta Fields, the Blackberries, singing backup.

Huckleberries, Incahoots (Huck 2005) I came across these guys busking on the High Street in Guildford, and they had Nate dancing in a matter of seconds. They do all sorts of string music, remind me a little of Canada's Stringband, but it's a glorious mix of bluegrass/folk/world that never has a soft centre, like so many celtic bands these days. They're at

Tarika, Soul Makassar (Sakay 2004) This band from Madagascar features the exquisite Rasoanaivo Hanitrarivo writing and singing songs of great quality, but the track that really hooked me, in much the same way Third World grabbed me more than other reggae bands years ago, is a sweet version of 'Be My Baby', called here 'Malalako'.

Budapest Quartet, Mozart: Six Hayden Quartets and Six String Quintets (Columbia Legends 2003) This one's another kick in the pants for those who say government is the problem, since they are all recordings made in the 40s and 50s by the Library of Congress, so we owe Unlce Sam a vote of thanks for this and the Monk/Coltrane. It would be easy to link the 'Dissonant' quartet with modern jazz, and I'm sure it's been done before, but when you listen to these players approaching Mozart, you hear all sorts of possibilities. This is the kind of disc you can listen to when you wake up, while you work, while you read, while you think, and when you go to bed. And then start over again. The desert island is going to need more shelves.

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