Monthly Archives: April 2017

Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960: Thelonious Monk (Part Two- The thing itself)

Having told the story of how this fine Monk box set came my way, with only minimal embellishment (I didn’t actually see anybody buy the Diana Ross album), it is time to get down to business and write about how the recording came to be made and to express an opinion on the music and the overall package.

At the end of May 1954 Thelonious Monk, travelling alone, crossed the Atlantic, landing in Paris, where he had been booked to play in the ‘Salon du Jazz’ Festival. Kelley* records how Monk had been a Francophile since he studied French as a teenager and this was his first visit to a city that had loomed large in his imagination since those days.

The concerts were of mixed quality, partly due to the lack of familiarity with his work and performance expectations by local accompanists. However, the short Parisian sojourn, during which he first encountered and hung out with his great friend Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, also indirectly led to his involvement with the soundtrack for ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’.

Like so many visitors, Monk spent hours exploring the streets of the city on foot. He was accompanied by a local jazz fan, Marcel Romano who also enjoyed a good walk and who showed him around. He even catered for Monk’s niche interests and took him to a celebrated Parisian milliners where the hat-lover purchased a number of authentic Basque berets. Subsequently, Romano’s love for the music led to him rapidly becoming an influential figure in the French jazz world and five years later he had been engaged as musical director for Roger Vadim’s film of ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’.

Despite the friendship between Monk and Romano the realisation of the recording involved a tortuous and convoluted struggle to get Monk to contract to the project. Following the cancellation of a soundtrack recording session in Paris in the spring of 1959, Romano travelled to New York to try to make progress ahead of a deadline of 31 July.

In the sumptuous and informative 52 page booklet which accompanies the recording, Kelley explains that Monk suffered mental trauma at the end of April 1959 which led to his admission to a psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts where he was first given the anti-psychotic medication Thorazine (chlorpromazine), the start of a fifteen year period during which the powerful anti-depressant with multiple side-effects was proscribed to him. This and other distressing circumstances, outlined with understanding and eloquence by Kelley, reduced his capacity to focus on the soundtrack. Kelley also states that Monk knew that he had been cheated out of the fruits of his labours on many previous occasions and by 1959 he only really trusted his wife Nellie and his great friend and supporter Baroness Nica.

As the deadline loomed Romano through amazing persistence finally got Monk to sign the contract at dawn on 26 July and on 27 July the recording session took place.

The music:-

Monk had not given himself enough time to compose any substantial bespoke pieces and so the recording session mainly draws on songs from his existing repertoire.

The set opens with a lively version of Rhythm-a-ning that contains a particularly good piano solo from Monk. Although he first recorded the tune in 1957 on an art Blakey led session, Monk had been playing the tune, based on the I Got Rhythm chord changes since his early 1940’s days in New York.

As was his habit, Crepuscule With Nellie is played note for note as a recital piece although Brian Priestly highlights some improvisation contained within the ‘pianistic textures used’ in the two versions committed to this soundtrack.

Six in One is a very fine and sensitive ballad played on solo piano by Monk. A quick look though one of the more detailed discographies indicates that this is the first release of the track under this name (although if any readers know more, please tell us). A treasure, which was not used for the final cut of the film.

The first version of Well, You Needn’t brings the band back and a fine tenor solo from Charlie Rouse explodes from the left hand channel. It echoes the impact of John Coltrane’s solo from the version that appeared on Monk’s Music but isn’t as strong.

Side Two starts with three takes of Pannonica, the first two solo and the third a quartet version with Charlie Rouse on tenor. There’s something joyous and almost playful about Monk’s piano on this version.

Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are features the full quintet with saxophone solos, first a relatively restrained effort from Rouse and then a confident 22 year old Frenchman, Wilen who acquits himself very well in such esteemed company.

Light Blue is let down by a leaden drum pattern which is too much to the fore (we’ll encounter Monk’s efforts to enable Art Taylor to get it right on Side Four).

By and By (We’ll Understand It Better By and By) is a traditional gospel hymn, which is largely solo and delightful but somewhat short.

Side Three opens up with a further visit to Rhythm-a-ning, edited from an incomplete take. The horns sound great here.

The first take of Crepuscule with Nellie follows. This involves a trio of Monk, Rouse and Taylor with Rouse lightly mirroring Monk and Taylor offering some very muted brushwork.

An alternate quintet take on Pannonica follows with bass and drums playing a slightly different accompaniment.

A further quartet version of Light Blue, with Wilen sitting out, closes the side. The drums are slightly more restrained and played with a lighter touch here making it the better of the two versions, in my opinion.

Side Four presents an unedited the perfectly enjoyable take on Well, You Needn’t. It also includes over 14 minutes tracing the making of Light Blue which largely involves a tedious rehearsal of the drum pattern and which is likely to be of only of the most marginal interest to most listeners, except for the last couple of minutes when things start to come together.

The current release can be considered as being made up of three segments. Sides One and Two are made up of selections that appeared on an edited tape annotated by Romano and containing the titles heard in the film with the addition of Six in One. The Second disc comprises alternative takes that were rejected for inclusion on the soundtrack and a third element which is a final long track on Side Four which captures the tortuous gestation of the drum phrase for Light Blue. This shows that while Monk knew what he wanted, Taylor was struggling to capture his wishes.

The soundtrack was never released as an album, probably for copyright and contractual reasons. Indeed the tapes were lost, only to be found amongst the late Marcel Romano’s archives in early 2014. In the words of the producers, Feldman, Xuan and Thomas who played the tapes labeled Thelonious Monk: ‘The most beautiful findings are often made by accident.’

I’m most definitely of the camp which believes that the world cannot have enough quality recordings made by Monk and I am delighted to have obtained a copy. However, it is an album that is a wonderful addition to the recorded works and certainly not a substitute for Brilliant Corners and Monk’s Music which contain the best known examples of most of the tracks found on the Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 soundtrack. If you are interested in Monk’s work then you really should seek this out to listen to and I also commend Kelley’s book which is referenced below.

The Vadim film is readily available and although I cannot recall having seen it I will endeavor to do so before the end of the year. I may even include a postscript when I do so.

The overall package is an item to treasure and the sound quality for this stereo release is excellent through my Rega RP6/Naim Uniti 2/Spendor SP2 system. Once again, I’m delighted that I obtained a copy.

The band etc: Thelonious Monk (piano); Charlie Rouse (tenor sax); Barney Wilen (tenor sax); Sam Jones (bass); Art Taylor (drums ). Recorded: July 27 1959. Session Engineer: Tom Nola. Record Produced: Zev Feldman, Francois Le Xuan & Fred Thomas. Studio: Nola Penthouse Sound Studios, 111 W 57th Street, New York City. Released: 22 April 2017. Cover photo: Arnaud Boubet. Booklet notes and essays: Zev Feldman; Laurent Guenoun; Alain Tercinet; Robin D.G. Kelley; Brian Priestly. Sam Records / Saga.

*Robin D.G. Kelley’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original: Free Press (New York) 2009.

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Les Liaisons Dangereuses: Thelonious Monk (Part One- the thrill of the chase)

All of a sudden! Unexpected news about a long-dead, favourite artist. Never before released on record, a complete studio session recorded for the soundtrack of a little-known French film is coming out as a limited edition. The initial release on vinyl will only stretch to 5000 copies worldwide and perhaps one of them may be available close to home. The catch is that the release is one of numerous special treats being made available to lovers of popular music on Record Store Day 2017. For sale from shop opening time on 22 April, on a first-come first-served basis, there can be no pre-orders and whether it can be obtained will depend on if it has been ordered and supplied locally. Of course, with that bridge crossed, there is also the nagging worry that somebody further up infront will be wanting a copy and will benefit from the civilised democracy of the queue.

So I joined the line outside Casbah Records in Greenwich, one of my local independent record shops.

The staff in Casbah are friendly and helpful. Whenever I drop in they always have a selection of new items that catch the eye, even though they are not usually from a musical genre that I listen to. Shops like Casbah are important and they add variety amidst the seas of conformity.

I took my cursory photo of the queue and waited for opening time. Unlike some shops which opened just after the stroke of midnight Casbah was far more relaxed with a very liberal start at 10.30am.

Chatting to two queue neighbours, I discovered that both were keen vinylistas. Both were a little cagey about their objects of desire but from what they were saying I guessed that they were unlikely to be after what I was on a mission to find.

The appointed time came and the queue moved slowly forward. After about 30 minutes we reached the threshold. I saw the Monk box set that I was hoping to buy on the wall. Good, I was close and in with a chance.

Then a woman ten places in front of me and holding a clutch of other albums asked for it to be taken down and handed to her. I had come so near to success only to have my hopes dashed in a cruel way!

She added it to her pile, as I tried to convince myself that whilst it was not to be, at least I had come close.

But it was to be! The would be purchaser cast an eye over her hoard before deciding that the copy of Les Liaisons Dangereuses was one item too many. I watched in anticipation as she passed it back to the assistant. The odds were that I was going to be successful.

The next few customers had other discs in mind and records by Bowie, The Grateful Dead, Diana Ross and The Doors were selected. It was my lucky day and within two minutes the record was bagged up and copy number 422/5000 was under my arm. I was pleased to witness the excitement of my queue-mates as they also made purchases and I wished them well as I left the shop.

Now here at downwithit.info we are firmly of the opinion that the best thing to do with jazz is to enjoy it. I’ve played both discs through it their entirety three times and I’m loving what I hear. I’ll write more here in Part Two, within the next few days, after a few more plays and close listens.

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Monk’s Music: Thelonious Monk

From time to time it takes me an age to write a post. Monk’s Music is a recording that is too good to hurry over but equally two months between posts is too much of a gap to be happy with. I’ve many other things to write about (not in the least the copy of Monk’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses which I managed to purchase on Record Store Day UK 2017 and which I will write about very soon). So here goes with a look at a one of the great works from a musical genius.

Recorded sixty years ago this year (2017), in his own 40th year, Monk’s Music is a masterpiece. The album was the product of a landmark recording session for which Monk engaged that trailblazer of jazz saxophone, Coleman Hawkins, alongside John Coltrane who was in the midst of a crucial, transformative phase and was yet to emerge as one of the key figures of modern jazz.

Although 1957 was to be his finest year, things had started very badly for Monk. In his definitive biography, Robin D.G. Kelley explains that during the 1956 Christmas holiday period Monk was involved in a minor car crash in New York City. Although nobody was physically injured, the incident caused Monk to suffer a mental breakdown, reception into custody for his own safety and an immediate admission as an inpatient at New York’s notorious Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. He was resident for between two and three weeks before being discharged without a diagnosis.

The period in hospital sharpened his desire to work, earn some money and, crucially, to put together a sextet with three horns: “…the right amount of horns”, as he told Ira Gitler in mid-January 1957. First came a six-night engagement in Philadelphia, being driven back and forth from New York each night by his firm friend and supporter, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter.

Monk spent the next couple of months with his wife and children. He countered his depression with hours of practice on the fine Steinway baby grand piano that he had rented at the end of 1956 and shoe-horned into his apartment. When he was not at home he was at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street, where Pannonica had settled and held an open musical salon in her suite. It was during this period that Monk and Coltrane began to work closely together. Monk became the saxophonist’s mentor as Coltrane attempted to improve his musicianship while struggling to overcome his addiction to heroin. Surely at that stage, the two artists could not imagine the legacies that each would go on to leave for us?

Along the way, in mid-April, Monk recorded another of his key works, Thelonious Himself, largely a solo work but with Coltrane and bassist Wilbur Ware contributing to a version of Monk’s Mood. A couple of days later Coltrane was fired by Miles Davis, who exasperated by Coltrane’s playing in the midst of withdrawal, may also have slapped and punched his band member. Apparently, this was witnessed by Monk who tried, without success, to intercede before offering Coltrane a job.

Their live partnership could not begin immediately as Monk was still without an all-important New York Cabaret Card which prevented him from playing in NYC. His card had been cancelled following a drugs bust several years before but his manager was working hard to get him a new one.

Just before the Monk’s Music session, his wife was admitted to hospital for treatment of an acute thyroid condition and this caused Monk an overwhelming sense of distress. In keeping with the adage ‘every cloud…’, the silver lining that was his gift to posterity was the beautiful Crepuscule With Nellie, which we will get to in a while. This was the product of sleepless nights, countless revisions and Baroness Nica’s suggestion that Crepuscule (the late Middle English word for twilight) was a better and more evocative alternative to evening for the title.

The recording begins with a short yet exquisite arrangement of Abide With Me. The hymn, which has a particular resonance for anybody who has attended an FA Cup Final was written by Monk’s namesake, British organist, William Henry Monk and entitled Eventide. Indeed there is a possibility that Monk may have made a connection with his own Crepuscule. This gem is only 55 seconds long and leaves this listener wanting more but very pleased with what has been served up in a short span.

Next up, Well, You Needn’t, starts with a swing before Monk calls on John Coltrane who delivers and exceptional solo which must have sounded like something from the future when the recording was released. The take extends to just under eleven and a half minutes and all of the musicians have space to solo.

Amongst Monk’s finest ballads, the recording of Ruby, My Dear presents a beautiful dialogue between Monk’s piano and Coleman Hawkins’ mellifluous tenor. The Ruby in question was Ruby Richardson, a significant girlfriend from Monk’s teenage years, which is when he first wrote the tune.

Off Minor has a jagged beauty that is full of surprises and is played with what my lack of theoretical musicianship leads me to venture to describe as a staccato angularity. In his sleeve notes for the 2010 CD reissue, Ashley Kahn notes that Kelley states that the tune is in G minor but that it ‘…never resolves to the tonic.’ This probably explains why it leaves us expecting something extra. The version used on the original release was the 5th take and the CD provides the bonus of an alternative version, the 4th take, which features strong though slightly less fluent and ‘worked out’ tenor and trumpet solos from Coleman and Copeland. We are lucky to have both to listen to.

Epistrophy was written by Monk and drummer Kenny Clarke in the early 1940s and it was to remain as an often visited staple of Monk’s repertoire (with Ted Gioia recording in ‘The Jazz Standards’ that over 50 recordings of the tune by Monk are known to survive). On Monk’s Music the version is a seamless splice of two takes with solos from each of the musicians starting with a fluent opening statement from Coltrane, before working through Copeland, Gryce, Ware, Blakey, Hawkins and finally Monk. Hawkins’ solo draws on his tenor’s lower register and is particularly full-bodied and robust, before Monk plays briefly and then ushers in the ensemble with an insistent caterwaul.

The afore-mentioned Crepuscule with Nellie closes the original recording. Kelley explains that unique amongst his recordings, Monk always played this without improvisation or embellishment. It is rendered as though the distilled feelings that he was conveying were sacrosanct and deeply personal. You can listen courtesy of YouTube:-

To play: touch or click on the arrow

On the CD there is an extra alternate edited version, which amalgamated the best of the 4th and 5th takes and is a welcome addition. I would venture that it possibly wasn’t selected as the master take as Blakey’s brushwork sounds a little intrusive.

As mentioned, in the lead-up to the session Monk had several sleepless nights due to worries about the poor state of his wife’s health and his search for perfection in the composition of Crepuscule. On the first day Art Blakey was an hour late and then took a further hour to set up his drum kit. Although a couple of unused takes of Crepuscule were recorded, Monk was exhausted and went home to sleep, with nothing that was used in the can. With precious studio time remaining, the other musicians rapidly rehearsed and recorded an improvisation on a Count Basie influenced blues written on the spot by Gigi Gryce. Blues For Tomorrow was subsequently released on a compilation under Coleman Hawkins name. It is fascinating to compare Hawkins solo to Coltrane’s, which he follows on from. Once again, playing in the tenor’s lower register, it almost sounds (to these ears) as though Hawkins is playing a baritone sax and he really makes the piece his own.

Monk was back next day, rested and ready to go. It was his session and he pushed his sidemen to deliver exactly what he wanted. Gryce had been tasked with arranging the horn parts and there was a gap between what he had written and what Monk had asked for. Kelley memorably recounts Monk saying to Hawkins and Coltrane:-
“You’re the great Coleman Hawkins, right? You’re the guy who invented the tenor saxophone, right?” Hawk agreed. Then Monk said to Trane, “You’re the great John Coltrane, right?” Trane blushed, and mumbled, “Aw…I’m not so great.” Then Monk said to both of them, “You both play saxophone, right?” They nodded. “Well, the music is on the horn. Between the two of you, you should be able to find it.”
Find it, they all did and the entire issued album was taped on 26 June 1957

With the session in the bag, the producer, Orrin Keepnews and label boss Bill Grauer felt that they had captured something special. Cover art was conceived but Monk hated what was proposed and was angry with the designer. The original idea was to feature a photograph of him wearing a monk’s robe, standing in a pulpit and holding a glass of whisky but Monk rejected it out of hand. He went to another part of the studio where he rested on the photographer’s trolley. The unposed image was a striking one and surprisingly Monk was happy to be photographed, adding his briefcase, music paper and a pencil and explaining that he had previously composed while sitting outside his home on his child’s wagon.

Monk got his cabaret card back in May 1957 and was booked into New York’s Five Spot venue from 4th July for what turned into a 6 month residency. He was able to honour his commitment to John Coltrane who joined him on the stage from Tuesday 16 July 1957. The classic album that is Monk’s Music was released in early 1958 and acclaimed as one of the year’s top five albums by Downbeat. I cannot recommend that you listen to it too highly. The session that produced Monk’s Music is exceptional so don’t miss the version supplemented by the additional tracks on CD.

Robin D.G. Kelley’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original was first published by Free Press (New York) in 2009. I am grateful to have benefitted from Kelley’s scholarship and insights and commend it as an essential purchase and great read for those who are interested in Monk.

The band etc: Thelonious Monk (piano); Ray Copeland (trumpet); Gigi Gryce (alto sax); John Coltrane (tenor sax); Coleman Hawkins (tenor sax); Wilbur Ware (bass); Art Blakey (drums ). Recorded: June 26 1957 (Blues For Tomorrow 25.06.57). Produced: Orrin Keepnews. Studio: Reeves Sound, New York City. Released: 1958. Cover photo: Paul Weller. Sleeve notes: Orrin Keepnews. Riverside RLP 12 242. Additional sleeve notes on CD release: Ashley Kahn 2010.

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