Thursday, October 13, 2005

Carnegie Hall, November 27th, 1957

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.

--John Coltrane

Get your epiphany on: A high quality recording of the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane has been discovered. I stumbled across this news on October 10th (ht Armwood Jazz Blog), a redletter day which happened to be Columbus Day this year. Serendipity. Hmm.

....Waiting for the man in Brown. Meanwhile, NPR has put up three complete cuts, "Monk's Mood," "Bye-Ya," and "Epistrophy" (follow the link at the top). Bluenote has posted a clip of "Evidence" and "Monk's Mood," as well as mp3s for itunes subscribers.

What's the significance of these recordings? If you have to ask, it's going to be hard to explain--but I'll give it a shot. Coltrane's gig with the Monk Quartet at the Five Spot is legendary among Jazz heads for several reasons. First, it marked Monk's return to live performance in New York after having been denied his cabaret card. Monk was still on top of it, brimming with musical ideas that were being heard for the first time outside of Monk's circle of friends. Secondly, the tenure with Monk marked a crucial phase in the development of Coltrane's music. In the space of a few years, Coltrane went from being a gifted soloist in the mold of Charlie Parker to being a musical titan, a genuis of American music in his own right.

Listen to the tune, "Blue Train," recorded in September of 1957. (Lucas Pickford has offered a good transcription of Trane's solo. Once again, the Real Book, and some other printed transcriptions of the head are misleading. The tune is not a minor blues, but a straight up blues, as Pickford correctly notes. To dig this music, you must be able to hear the difference between a #9 and a minor third. In the tonic, too.) Okay, so how does one get from "Blue Train" to "Giant Steps," released in 1960? "Giant Steps" introduced to the Jazz World the idea of a triparite division of the twelve-tone scale integrated with traditional ii-V-I chord changes. ("Giant Steps" also features a wholetone scale in the bass line which is often overlooked.) This pattern of modulating changes became known as Coltrane changes. They have become ingrained in the jazz lexicon. One sees music books with titles like "John Coltrane plays Coltrane Changes" and scarcely bats an eye.

So what does this have to do with Monk? Well, one thing Monk had already accomplished was the breakdown of the twelve-tone system, and the superposition of intervalic patterns that can be modulated or sequenced over familiar progressions. An understanding of the tune as a relationship between sets of intervals or intervalic figures rather than chord progressions was already nascent in bebop, and can be heard as far back as the Minton's Play House recordings featuring Monk and Charlie Christian, among others. By 1957 a lot of this thinking had already been absorbed, and had even become cliched in some forumulations. Everybody knew for example that you could substitute descending half-steps over a circle of fourths, or vice versa. But cats who were hip to this as simply tritone chord subsitutions were taking a lot for granted. Additionally, since the swing era a lot of cats had been hip to the wholetone phenomenon, and full diminished chords in the dominant position. There were some interesting explorations of these realms by some of the era's leading musicians (off the top of my head Ellington, Strayhorn, Reinhardt, Hawkins and Young), but typically in the context of a traditional understanding of the tune, a practical recieved wisdom about the relationship between melodic tones and functional harmony. Monk tunes are remarkable for a number of reasons, but two features in particular mark a departure point for the music that followed: (1) Monk tunes often thematicize particular intervals, with the bridge (in ballad forms) or the turnaround (in blues forms) being used to present contrasting material; and (2) Monk tunes frequently explore unstable or ambiguous tonalities. As good example as any would be "Epistrophy," which became Monk's signature tune in the 1950's.

Hearing Trane solo on "Epistrophy" is just amazing. A lot of horn players won't even touch it. They'll just play the head and let it go at that. Even horn players that fronted for Monk would often demur. It is the essence of Monk's deceptive simplicity. Coltrane attacks it with energy, and it's obvious that he understands the harmonic ideas laid out in the head. It's about the tritone subsitution at the same time it explores the full diminished chord in the tonic, with an unusual (though charterisic of Monk) accent on sixths. The tune begins on c# and ends on e, or. more to the point, it explores the movement from bb to e first as it relates to a movement from C#9 to D9, then finally, after some modulations, a bridge and so on, it comes back to that interval, umphently, to sound it in itself. So where's the tonic? How can you be sure? It stands as a pretty good example of a fourpart division of the twelvetone scale being superimposed upon a familiar bop chord movement. I think it's evident that Coltrane understands it that way, and then some--but I definitely need to hear it some more before pressing the point.

And it may be beside the point. One has to concede the possibility. Of all things happening in Coltrane's life that might have contributed to his spiritual awakening, these little musical epiphanies may not have been the most vital. There is an understanding of the music that would place the epiphany at the center of the music, especially in the wake of the bebop revolution and the accomplishments of its leading exponent, Charlie Parker. But there are dissenters, Pat Metheny for instance, who view this whole business of finding epiphanies in extemporaneous performance as a myth. Even if you don't find any epiphanies in this recording of the Monk Quartet featuring John Coltrane, you might be able to hear specific licks or vague musical ideas that crop up later on the album Giant Steps. So it's an interesting bit of jazz history. And you will hear a very beautiful rendition of "Monk's Mood," which may yet supplant the studio version on Thelonious Himself (on which Coltrane plays uncredited) as the quintessential version.

posted by Fido the Yak at 5:11 AM.


Anonymous Caleb said...

I'm so pumped about this CD that ... I own it and haven't opened it yet. I keep waiting for the right time to absorb it in all its historical meaningfulness; I don't just want to pop it in as background music.

The epigram to your post was eye-catching: I had never noticed that 1957--the year Coltrane kicked his habit and played with Monk--was the year he mentioned in the liner notes to Love Supreme. (I assume that's where the quote comes from?)

October 19, 2005 4:52 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Yeah, A Love Supreme. Hi, Caleb.

UPS delivered, and I too waited before opening it. I have listened to it several times now. Don't read further until you've absorbed it, please.

"Monk's Mood" is not as elegant as the studio version. "Bye-Ya" was just great. I liked the energy on "Evidence" and both versions "Epistrophy." What they did with "Sweet and Lovely" was a departure from Monk's typical treatment. (I had recently been listening to the Solo Monk cd which has a couple of takes of that tune.) I liked the horn part in the head. The doubletime? It worked, I guess.

"Crepuscle with Nellie" was interesting because it's through-composed, as they say, but still they found some space for improvisation. What does "through-composed" mean for a jazz musician? Some habits die hard.

On a related note, UPS also delivered the Thelonious Monk Fakebook (C instruments) and Bud Powell: Mostly Bud, Original Voicings. The Monk Fakebook relied on session lead sheets, and a studious analysis of the recordings. Charts like "Ruby My Dear" are clearly superior to the Real Book version or full transcriptions, because they distill what is essential to the tune, what Monk always plays (or plays off or against). It's not just the "melody" line, not just the front line.

Now playing: McCoy Tyner's Illuminations, with Gary Bartz, Terence Blanchard, Christian McBride, and Lewis Nash. My favorite cut may be McBride's "West Philly Tone Poem." Am I getting old? Or is it just the moment I'm in?

October 19, 2005 10:54 PM  

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