Tag Archives: Piano

Horace Parlan: 1931 to 2017

I was sorry to learn of the passing of pianist Horace Parlan on 23 February 2017, aged 86. Over the last few years, I’ve heard and enjoyed much of his work. Since writing about him in 2014, in addition to other recordings by him, I have obtained and rate highly the two albums of traditional blues and gospel songs that he recorded with Archie Shepp and released on Steeplechase in the 1970s.

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Spacebound Apes: Neil Cowley Trio

spacebound-apes

Spacebound Apes is one of those releases that I had very high expectations of. In 2014 I took a look at Neil Cowley’s last album Touch and Flee. At the time I wondered whether it would survive the test of time as a set that I would return to. It did and I have enjoyed revisiting it occasionally over the last two years.

I was delighted when I received a copy of the current set to listen to and I said I would try to review it immediately.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to turn this around quite as quickly as I had anticipated and well over a month has passed by.

I’ve finally got there after some difficulty and it is time to publish, if only to mark this down as ‘done’ and move on towards other projects.

Spacebound Apes is a concept album and this sets the alarm bells ringing for me. The 1970’s and 80’s saw the release of numerous musical extravaganzas in which rock musicians, who had often delivered strong earlier recordings, were allowed to develop themed albums where absurdity was often a highly visible passenger in the stagecoach of grandiosity. Thank heavens for honest to goodness soul, pub rock and punk which provided an alternative and eventually sluiced out the Augean Stables of pomp rock. Sorry if this offends but you can keep Topographic Oceans, Tommy, Tarkus, Olias of Sunhillow and each and every one of Henry VIII’S six wives and don’t expect me to start work on a musical interpretation of The Labours of Hercules any time soon.

Does music benefit from an associated comic book, animations, short films, costumed performers and other embellishments? I suppose it can do but, in live performance, a short verbal introduction from the artist can take us into the world of our own imagination that can be even more powerful than an unwanted and superfluous picture or projection.

While struggling with Spacebound Apes I wanted to make sure I was giving the piece a fair hearing and I went to see a live performance by Neil Cowley and his band. Introducing his show, Cowley was engaging and unpretentious. All three musicians were very talented and were listening intently to each other. The first section offered the current album in its entirety, with an accompanying slide show which helped to set the scene for the track that was being played.

The second half dispensed with the visuals, without losing anything. Tracks included Bluster and His Nibs. When Cowley announced that the last song was called She Eats Flies the title led me to assume that we were in for something that would disappoint. However, he disclosed that the ‘she’ in question was a spider the size of a Labrador dog that lives at the bottom of his garden. That simple explanation conjured up an image and added to what we heard without needing its own comic strip, back projection or articulated arachnid prop.

Time to take a look at the album, which concerns a 43 year old male who is having a mid-life crisis. I don’t know about you (and this excludes all younger and female readers), but I’ve been there, done that and, over time, the scars slowly healed. If you want to know more about the concept under consideration you can google the Spacebound Apes website. As for me, I’ll just follow my usual format of offering a brief listening note for each of the tracks on the CD:

Weightless ia a piece on which the piano trio are supplemented by electronics. I particularly enjoyed the bass playing here.

Hubris Major starts with a further electronic phase before Cowley’s piano and the bass drum move us through another of his delightful numbers on which Cowley really conjures a sense of space.

Governance is a track with a staccato feel seemingly conveying an image of monotony and stultification. It is definitely not something to jump out of bed to in the morning.

The City and the Stars, a dynamic track. On the video, Rex Horan plays an electric bass hung down low in a stance reminiscent of Peter Hook.

The next track, Grace, is a beautiful tune that has a hymn-like quality. It is the high point of the set for me. Take a look at the accompanying images:-

Echo Nebula presents us with another dreamy soundscape.

The Sharks of Competition led me to imagine a frenetic combination of Devo and Joy Division, which is OK in its place.

Duty To The Last. Brooding sense of menace gives way to the solemnity of an elegy.

Garden Of Love. Conjuring images of passing through something and marvelling without engaging.

Death of Amygdala. The Amygdala lies deep within the brain and, according to Wikipedia, ‘…performs a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional reactions.’ A dreamy track, which has a classical feel about it and while pleasant enough could possibly do with more development to turn it into something a little more special.

Finally, The Return of Lincoln is a short closing track.

Overall, I was disappointed by Spacebound Apes. As stated, I’ve liked some of Cowley’s earlier work and the band delivered a fine live performance at Islington’s Union Chapel at the end of October 2016. I feel somewhat churlish in my reaction, as a great deal of thought and effort has obviously gone into the making of this. But I also have a deep suspicion, verging on aversion to ‘concept albums’. This one offers up a series of moods and soundscapes, as they all do with varying degrees of success, but, for me, the overall dish doesn’t work.

I’m not giving up on Neil Cowley and will return to tracks like Grace and Weightless whilst hoping that he navigates away from grand concepts in the future. It really isn’t what the World needs, while a great piano player and composer will always be in demand. The Neil Cowley Trio are well worth catching live and play with great energy so don’t ignore them if they are in a venue near you.

The band etc:- Neil Cowley (piano); Evan Jenkins (drums); Rex Horan (bass); Leo Abrahams (guitar, FX). Produced: Dom Monks. Recorded: RAK Studios, London. Released September 2016. HideInside Records.

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Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall

Monk & Coltrane at Carnegie Hall

Reader, I have a confession. This started out as a review of Thelonious Monk Live At The It Club (in Los Angeles 1964) but ended up as a look at the Carnegie Hall Concert (November 1957), via a visit to The Five Spot in New York City (August 1958). There is an explanation. Firstly, although it is an excellent recording featuring a great performance by Monk, a review of The It Club set is a daunting prospect. The Colombia double CD runs to over 150 minutes and contains 19 separate compositions. I did think about writing about it over two or three posts but, somehow that didn’t seem satisfactory. Secondly, I came to realise the significance of a short period during an amazing year for two of the all time greats (if not the greatest). Thirdly, I wanted to write about the Carnegie Hall Concert, with its tale of the re-discovery of a lost treasure of incalculable value. So here we go.

At the end of November 1957, Monk was invited to play in two performances of a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall to raise funds for the Morningside Community Center in Harlem. The prospect of making a contribution to this local social action centre appealed to him because as a young person he had spent most of his free time at a youth centre across the road from his family home in Midtown New York. The rest of the bill was stellar and included Billie Holliday, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Zoot Simms and Sonny Rollins. Ray Charles headlined with a jazz set. Two dollars, or $3.95 for the best seats and you were in.

Monk Coltrane Carnegie Poster

In the four months before the concert, John Coltrane had been playing as part of Monk’s quartet at the Five Spot. This was the year in which Coltrane’s talents flowered. He had kicked heroin after being fired by Miles Davis in April 1957 and spent a great deal of time at Monk’s apartment, learning from the older master-musician. The superb and informative booklet which accompanies the CD release records Coltrane as saying:-
“I’d go by his apartment and get him out of bed (laughs). He’d wake up and roll over to the piano and start playing… He would stop and show me some parts that were pretty difficult, and if I had a lot of trouble, well, he’d get his portfolio out and show me the music…sometimes, we’d get through just one tune a day. Maybe.”

In ’57 Monk also had much to celebrate. Brilliant Corners had been released and earlier work on Blue Note and Riverside was re-released on the new 12″ long playing LPs. He had regained his Cabaret Card in May 1957 and was once again able to play in New York clubs that served alcohol. In July, he obtained a residency at The Five Spot, a small bar on the edge of The Bowery and on Tuesday July 16, he was joined by John Coltrane. The original piano was inadequate and in very poor repair but with an eye to the crowds lining up outside every night the club owner rapidly agreed to allow Monk to source a Baldwin baby grand.

The night at Carnegie Hall gave Monk the opportunity to perform in public on one of renowned venue’s concert grands. Monk’s Mood features a pianist taking great delight in the tone of an excellent piano and the fine acoustics of the hall (although he also had access to two baby grand Steinway pianos: his own rented instrument and one owned by his friend Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter). John Coltrane also approaches this beautiful ballad, that he made great efforts to learn and interpret, with great sensitivity, while Shadow Wilson’s drumming is sparse and complements the two soloists.

Evidence is angular and almost jagged with Monk giving Coltrane the space to develop a solo that contains fast phrases reminiscent of his work on the recently recorded Blue Train.

Crepuscule With Nellie had been written in the early summer of 1957 at a time when Monk’s beloved wife was facing a major thyroid operation. Monk laboured long and hard to produce music which captured his feelings and sought perfection in a piece that he usually played without improvisation or embellishment (on this version there is a brief reference to the ’52nd Street Theme’ just after Coltrane starts to play). ‘Crepuscule’ sounds like some type of seafood but it actually means ‘twilight’ and it was suggested that Monk should consider using the French word by his friend the Baroness.

This is followed by a jaunty version of Nutty, which features some fine percussion and great fluency from Coltrane.

Epistrophy is complex with some fine cymbal work. The quartet is really tight and this is superlative musicianship.

I understand that the final four tracks were recorded during the second set of the evening.

Bye-Ya is another vehicle for John Coltrane to shine on, although there is a short solo from Monk before the band moves straight into Sweet And Lovely, the standard favoured and recorded regularly by Monk.

Blue Monk is taken at a brisk pace. This tune is a classic which has become a staple of the young jazz musician’s repertoire, which means that it is regularly put through the mangle. I recently heard a sax player in a local pub who should never play this again until he can aspire to get within a million miles of how Coltrane plays here (not playing flat would be a start). You can listen courtesy of Praguedive on Youtube by touching or clicking on the arrow below:-

Finally a second truncated reprise of Epistrophy from the second set closes the recording.

Although Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane worked together during an intense period of about six months, very little was recorded by the great quartet. There were three studio tracks and a further live recording made by Coltrane’s first wife on a portable tape machine. There was an awareness that the Carnegie Hall concerts had been recorded by Voice of America and Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter had made enquiries at the Library of Congress, which was believed to be where they had been consigned to, but the tapes were lost. Then, in February 2005, Larry Appelbaum, a recording lab supervisor, found several tapes labelled ‘Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957’ and one had a box with a note labelled T Monk. A treasure had been discovered and within six months this resulting album was released. It is available on vinyl- with the Mosaic recording being the one to seek out. However, I’m delighted with the CD which comes complete with a brilliant booklet. This is a recording that I recommend without reservation and which I hope you will enjoy. Happy listening.

The band etc: Thelonious Monk (piano); John Coltrane (tenor sax); Ahmed Abdul-Malik (bass); Shadow Wilson (drums). Recorded: 29 November 1957. Produced for release: T.S. Monk and Michael Cuscuna. Cover illustration: Felix Sockwell. Sleeve notes: Amiri Baraka; Ira Gitler; Ashley Kahn; Stanley Crouch; Robin D.G. Kelley; Lewis Porter and Larry Appelbaum. Released as Blue Note 35173 on September 27, 2005.

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Brilliant Corners: Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk Brilliant Corners

The music of Thelonious Monk is as fresh and, for many of us, as challenging as it was when it was first brought into the world, in the middle years of the last Century. Brilliant Corners, described by some as the album on which Monk broke through from relative obscurity, is a good place to start.

The jagged genius and complexity of the time signature changes of the first piece, which gives the set its title was such that it proved extremely difficult to capture. At a time when most jazz was recorded in a single take and often with minimal rehearsal, the track was only completed after 25 takes, two of which were spliced together to make up the finished piece. The sleeve notes, written by the producer, Orrin Keepnews tell us: “These men worked hard. They struggled and concentrated and shook their heads over some passages with those half-smiles that mean: ‘Hard? this is impossible!'”

Things get more straightforward after this. If you want to listen to the epitome of Jazz-blues look no further than Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are. The only pity is that Charlie Parker’s untimely demise meant that he wasn’t around to cut a version of this. There’s an extraordinary dialogue between Monk and Pettiford as his bass solo commences and leads into a brief visit to Roach on drums.

Pannonica was written for Monk’s soul mate and patron, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter who played a major part in encouraging the emerging New York Modern Jazz scene. Her story is a fascinating one. Monk plays celeste (with his right hand) and piano (left hand) on an exquisite piece. I’m not quite sure about the celeste or the main horn voicings but it is certainly a distinctive track which stands out.

I Surrender Dear is Monk delivering a piano solo version of a standard tune which was largely responsible for Bing Crosby coming to prominence in the early 1930’s. This track was recorded as a filler- with Monk playing a tune that he liked. Apparently he was recorded playing a half hour version of this while resident pianist at Minton’s in the 1940’s. He loved the recording so much that he wore it out by playing the master copy over and over, so much so that the quality had diminished to the extent that it was un-salvageable for public release. Ted Gioia rightly intimates that posterity can only rue the loss of an early performance by Monk that the man himself was mesmerised by.

Bemsha Swing is wonderful, drawing on the amazing skills of the full band and creating something ever vibrant, exciting and new. Max Roach’s kettle drums add greatly to this track. Incidentally, Ted Gioia says that ‘Bemsha’ is a nickname for Barbados and is probably explained by co-composer Denzil Best’s Barbadian roots. The track is reproduced here on YouTube courtesy of Master Exelpud:

This album was featured as Classic Album Sunday’s choice in London on 1st February 2015. The first two tracks were played from the rare Analogue Productions 45 rpm audiophille pressing on their muscular high-end system (boasting a huge Audio Note Jinro power amplifier and massive Klipschorn speakers you could make a small house out of). The sound was exceptional and I was particularly impressed on this snapshot, one-off listen by the way Sonny Rollins tenor and Oscar Pettiford’s bass were reproduced. The second side was brought to us via a white label UK test pressing and that had an altogether different quality. It sounded much more compressed and muddier over the same system. I was disappointed by Max Roach’s crucial kettle drum sound on Bemsha Swing on this pressing and the Analogue Productions version easily won this head to head, to my ears at least.

I enjoyed this ClassicAlbumSundays event, which featured a brief intro from Coleen of CAS and a short interview with the proprieter of Gearbox Records who are putting together a list of previously unreleased jazz performances which may soon be further strengthened by a previously unreleased Scandinavian recording of Monk. I’m not sure it added to my appreciation of this great record but I certainly appreciated the clash of the pressings. I reckon I could just about fit the Klipschorns into my parlour.

I’m not sure about the exact date of release in 1956 or 1957, although the final session date of 9 December 1956 suggests that, given production, mastering and pressing, an April 1957 date is the most plausible.

The band etc: Thelonious Monk (piano, celeste on Pannonica); Ernie Henry (alto sax on Brilliant Corners, Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are & Pannonica); Sonny Rolins (tenor sax); Oscar Pettiford (bass on Brilliant Corners, Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are & Pannonica); Max Roach (drums *timpani on Bemsha Swing); Clark Terry (trumpet on Bemsha Swing); Paul Chambers (bass on Bemsha Swing). Recorded: Oct 9 & 15 & December 7 1956. Produced: Orrin Keepnews & Bill Grauer. Studio: Reeves Sound Released: April 1957. Cover photo: Paul Weller. Sleeve notes: Orrin Keepnews. Riverside RLP 12 226.

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Archie Shepp & Dollar Brand: Duet

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Although I’m something of a newcomer to the work of Archie Shepp, I have enjoyed listening to Abdullah Ibrahim for over 20 years, indeed I had the good fortune to attend a solo performance in a venue up the road from where I live in the late 1980’s. This set brings two distinctive musicians together and it was one of those orders placed in anticipation that it would live up to its promise.

Duet was recorded at Columbia’s studios in Tokyo in 1978, with a Japanese producer. I don’t usually comment on the recording quality but Shepp’s sound on this album compels me to do so. Overall, the reproduction is extremely clear and detailed but there is a devil in that detail, to my ears.

Archie Shepp’s playing detracts from what could have been a great set. From his opening notes on Fortunato it seems as though he is pecking at the mouthpiece, playing with short breaths and letting too many notes end with a badly controlled pitter-patter sound. It’s almost as though he is playing his tenor sax with a similar mouth action to Hannibal Lecter when he says ‘Clarice th th th th th’ early in The Silence Of The Lambs. It could be the microphone placement and too much studio accuracy, but to this (tenth rate) former saxophonist it just sounds like very sloppy playing. The track itself is a slow and subdued piece, best suited to reflective early hours listening, perhaps.

Barefoot Boy From Queens Town (To Mongezi) is a great piece of Township Jazz- light without being trite and a delightful composition. Typical of a certain vein of Abdullah Ibrahim’s work. But there is a surprise here. It was only when I looked at the sleeve credits that I discovered that it was actually written by Archie Shepp (whose playing is more appealing on his soprano sax here).

Left Alone has a wistful, yearning sort of feel to it. Blues for the hours after midnight, perhaps with a fine single-malt whisky close to hand, if that’s your poison.

Theme From ‘Proof Of The Man’ had me mining Google as I wanted to find out what nature of the underlying production was. As this wiki link shows, it is a Japanese / American detective film which seems bleak and ends up with a pile of the bodies of all main protagonists. I may seek it out sometime, or maybe not. It’s another tone poem. Abdullah Ibrahim does not let us down but, once again Shepp’s playing falls short for the reasons referred to above.

Ubu-Suku, at just over 4 minutes is the shortest track by some way and, to my ears, is a bit of an aimless meander.

You can listen to the closing track, Moniebah courtesy of YouTube. It offers a mellifluous and satisfying conclusion to a good album, which could and should have been great. Archie Shepp isn’t really Hannibal Lecter, but he has played far better elsewhere.

To play, touch or click on the arrow.

The band etc: Archie Shepp (soprano, alto & tenor saxophones); Dollar Brand (piano) Recorded: Nippon Columbia 1st Studio, Tokyo, Japan (06/05/1978). Producer: Yoshiro Ozawa. Cover Photography: To follow. Issued by Denon.

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