“Ruby, My Dear” by Thelonious Monk
(Music: Thelonious Monk, Album: The Best of Thelonious Monk: The Blue Note Years, Blue Note Records 1991)
When people ask me who my favorite jazz artists are, Thelonious Monk is always in the first few mentioned. My automatic response goes something like this: “Miles Davis, John Coltrane…” then Monk in there with Charles Mingus and Weather Report/Jaco Pastorius. But Monk is first on piano with Dave Brubeck a distant second. His music is full of such rich melodies and complex intricacies that when they combine, they seem almost simplistic. Almost as if you weren’t listening to jazz at all, but just some nice music. His composition “Ruby, My Dear” is an ideal example of this. One of his more popular jazz ballads, he has recorded the song a number of times both with small bands and as a solo piece for piano, as is the tradition unique to jazz and blues. After all, could you imagine Led Zeppelin recording “Stairway to Heaven” four or five different times? in jazz, it isn’t about recording perfection; it’s about recording the feeling and emotion of that moment and, since feelings and emotions (as well as situations, skills, and the accompanying players) always change, so does the song. What Monk recorded in 1947 was the most basic version of the song which he could expand on and experiment with for the rest of his career. Every subsequent performance and recording was a brief musical snapshot that he shared with the other players and the audience. Some performances find him contemplative, some playful, some energized, some exhausted. Such is the life of a jazz artist and his/her relationship with a song. But whatever the mood, the song is still the song - remaining is the series of simple melodic phrases played with the right hand while the left hand fills in the gaps between the phrases with bass notes. Slightly altering the phrases or playing a slightly different series of bass notes gives the song a different feeling, like re-painting the Mona Lisa in a slightly different shade. This is what Thelonious Monk excelled at - altering the shades of a song and creating a slightly new experience for the truly perceptive listener while maintaining enough familiarity for the casual one.
More Thelonious Monk: AmazonMP3 - last.fm - AllMusic - eMusic
More Blues and Jazz Tuesday posts from shelterfromthenorm
Songs of Summer – Day 10
“Summertime” by Charlie Parker
(Music: George and Ira Gershwin, Album: Charlie Parker with Strings, Mercury Records 1950)
While I was writing about Janis Joplin’s version of “Summertime,” I listed a number of great jazz artists who also covered the Broadway hit. I knew then that this song deserved more than one post dedicated to it. This version by Charlie Parker comes from his iconic Charlie Parker With Strings disc which sees him tone down his manic style quite a bit to focus on the beauty of the melody of the song instead of trying to race through at a frantic pace which would eventually inspire the Beat Generation writers to try to imitate him in their writing style. Usually marked with long, flowing passages centered on a few notes of a melody and then played in variations, Parker’s style epitomized the fast and free underground scene of the 50s. While some may claim that the songs on this album represent of Parker’s selling out of his hard bop style, I believe that they express an alternate side to this tremendous musician. Besides, what says summer more than a slow and sultry jazz saxophone, and who better to play it than Charlie Parker.
“I’ve Got a Woman (live)” by Ray Charles
(Words/Music: Ray Charles and Renald Richard, Album: Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-1959), Atlantic Records 2005)
For the last few years, Ray Charles has been growing on me. For years, the only song I thought I knew from him was “Georgia On My Mind.” I remember his humorous inclusion as the pawn shop owner in The Blues Brothers and his rousing rendition of “Shake Your Tail Feather.” Then came the biopic with Jamie Foxx and I was exposed to some more songs where I became aware of the original Ray Charles versions of “Unchain My Heart” and “Hit the Road, Jack.” So when AmazonMP3 offered Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-195) for a mere five dollars, the purchase was a no-brainer.
Of the 21 songs on the disc, the one which continually stood out to me was the live version of “I’ve Got a Woman” (often titled “I Got a Woman” elsewhere in the Charles catalog). The main reason the song grabs my attention is the misdirection in the first minute or so. Charles begins with a bluesy interpretation of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” (or “Bagatelle in A Minor”) which leads into a slow wailing intro before the well-known R&B version of “I’ve Got a Woman” begins. The rest of the song is classic 50’s era Ray Charles combining blues, jazz, and gospel into a musical style that was, at the time, scandalous, but which would eventually become the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll.
“Money Jungle” by Duke Ellington
(Music: Duke Ellington, Album: Money Jungle, Blue Note 1962)
The title track from this 1962 album featuring Duke Ellington on piano, Charles Mingus on bass, and Max Roach on drums marks a departure from the orchestral jazz Ellington is most known for. An intimate trio of jazz legends, the single most recognizable feature of the song is Charles Mingus pounding on his bass creating an unavoidable dissonance that the piano in drums just continue to play over. It kind of reminds me of a child throwing a tantrum in the grocery store and begging for attention while the parents just carrying on. Even though the bass stands out so much on this song, it in some way doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the song, but actually enhances it. (It is certainly more enjoyable to be the musical audience than the audience in the grocery store witnessing the tantrum!) I guess that’s a level of musical knowledge and genius that I just don’t get: how to combine chords and pedal tones and the like so they seem to clash but actually end up creating multi-layered harmonies that people want to listen to over and over again. Overall, the album is a great listen especially if you’re interested in sound experiments like the electric jazz Miles Davis work through to Sonic Youth.
(Note: Money Jungle is currently available from AmazonMP3 for $5 for the month of April.)
“Trinkle, Tinkle” by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane
(Music: Thelonious Monk, Album: Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, Milestone Records 1957)
When I began listening to jazz in my early 20s, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane were two of the musicians I immediately gravitated to. I enjoyed Monk’s classics like “Straight, No Chaser,” “’Round Midnight,” and “Blue Monk” as well as Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” “Central Park West,” and “A Love Supreme.” So when I stumbled upon a used copy of the Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane CD, I was ecstatic. Of the six songs on the CD my favorites are the three are with small quartets: “Ruby, My Dear,” “Nutty,” and “Trinkle, Tinkle.” Of those, the last is the one which gets the most plays.
The song begins with an introduction of the bright and bouncy melody played by Monk and repeated by Coltrane. While the bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Shadow Wilson set the foundation, they continue with this call-and-response form until the solo by Coltrane (behind which you can still hear Monk playing the melody). They return to the call-and-response again until Monk’s piano solo which ends with some solo work from Ware. Despite the various solos, they never wander far from the main melody and themes of the song, which helps its infectiousness. At the end of the 6:41 of the song, the melody is still Trinkling and Tinkling through my head, and what would you expect from a song from two of the legends of jazz? Reaction: hit replay and enjoy it again.
“Hey Jack Kerouac” by 10,000 Maniacs
(Words/Music: Robert Buck and Natalie Merchant, Album: MTV Unplugged, Elektra/Asylum 1993)
For me, this song represents the interconnection between two of my great loves: music and literature. While my trip to this song is a long and complicated one, winding its way through both music and literature (draw your On the Road analogies on your own), the eventual discovery of the song was more fruitful than normal. For as long as I can remember, I have been an avid reader and intrinsically interested in music. One day, while browsing through the local bookstore at the mall, I decided to read No One Here Gets Out Alive, the biography of Jim Morrison by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman. What was odd was that I wasn’t a particularly big fan of The Doors, but for whatever reason, the book sounded interesting. I devoured it. I began listening to The Doors with a fresh perspective and delved deeper into their catalogue, finding non-radio songs like “The End,” “Five To One,” and “Horse Latitudes.” Another thing I discovered while reading the book was that Jim Morrison was a fan of the Beat Generation, specifically jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. That set me on my quest to read On the Road and Howl and eventually the more periphery writers of the time period like Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. While reading On the Road I became interested in the jazz musicians Kerouac mentioned in the novel, particularly Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. That was my next listening experience, again expanding my interest to others at that time like John Coltrane and Charles Mingus.
At some point in my constant search for more about all of these artists, I found out that the 10,000 Maniacs had actually recorded a song about Jack Kerouac. Although I was living in Buffalo at the time and had lived in Jamestown, NY (hometown of the 10,000 Maniacs) for a few years before that, I had not really been a fan until they began to gain notoriety as one of the major bands of the “new” underground “alternative” scene. With the help of The Doors and jazz to expand my musical pallet, I was finally ready to fully understand and appreciate 10,000 Maniacs, the band a friend and I had walked out on while the played in a club in Jamestown in 1986, shortly after their first record deal. (We were drawn to the all-ages club because the name sounded like they might be a metal band…oops.) I thoroughly enjoyed both the song itself, especially the brighter and punchier unplugged version, and the content of the song complete with all of its name-dropping. Because of the journey to the song, the discovery of it made a deeper and more profound connection with me because I had a history with the band (they were local) and I had read the authors they were singing about. While music and literature have always been fundamentally linked, this particular link was even more special for me.
“Deacon Blues” by Steely Dan
(Words/Music: Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, Album: Aja, ABC 1977)
“Deacon Blues” is one of the few songs I find myself singing or humming completely out of nowhere. Usually, I hear a song and it gets caught in my head (you all know what I mean, I’m sure), but the main lines from the chorus, “They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/ They call me Deacon Blues,” seems permanently stuck there and surfaces at the most random times. I wish I could tell you that it has some sort of greater significance and that it happens at particular times or when I am in a particular mood, but I can’t. Instead, Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, and the rest of Steely Dan have managed to make a song that seems fairly synonymous with my general being. And it seems to have had that effect on a lot of people. It is a bit of a rare radio success considering the entire song is so understated, from Donald Fagen’s vocals and electric piano, to the soft horn section, and the quick, bright lead guitar lines. It’s pretty much soft jazz with vocals that found its way onto the classic rock landscape.
Fagen sings about wanting recognition for being normal and real instead of flashy and fake and assumes the persona of someone who makes a living and name for himself at night undercover of darkness and in the shadows instead of in the bright lights of the day. He chooses “Deacon Blues” as his nickname because it suggests someone who is dedicated to his ideals (Deacon) and part of an underground style (Blues). In the beginning of the song he reveals how he was once fascinated by the “ramblers [and] Wild gamblers” and playing in a band seems to be his entry into that world, his “crazy scheme.” However, either his lack of success or the more sophisticated style of music he chose doesn’t afford him the same level of fame nor the same lifestyle. In the end, he declares that he is fine with the way things have worked out because he likes the music he plays and he is free, but free from what? I imagine that maybe he looks at the superstars of his day and sees the endless demands on their time and how they’ve had to make numerous compromises in their music, and realizes that his success, while not the mega-success of which he once dreamed, is more in line with who he truly is: Deacon Blues. And maybe it keeps coming to me out of nowhere because I am too.
“So What” by Miles Davis
(Music: Miles Davis, Album: Kind of Blue, Columbia 1959)
Mile Davis should be considered the greatest American musician of the 20th Century alongside Bob Dylan. Like Dylan, his career has spanned enough time to create and master numerous sub-genres beginning with cool jazz, then hard bop, free jazz, and fusion. Davis was forever pushing boundaries and exploring the capabilities of not only what the trumpet could do but also what the human ear could find musical. In order to do this, he did what most good leaders do: surround himself with the finest people in his field. On “So What” and the rest of Kind of Blue, these people were legends in their own right: John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Cannonball Adderly on alto saxophone, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on percussion. He would continue this practice throughout his entire career, launching such jazz luminaries as Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and many others.
As for the song itself, I remember “So What” as being one of the first jazz songs that I heard and really liked. I could listen to it, I wasn’t bored by it (like so much elevator-music I’d associated jazz with before), and I could appreciate the abilities of the individual musicians (even if I wasn’t sure who those musicians were yet). I knew there was something different about this song and as I researched a bit for this post, I found that it is set in Dorian mode (as opposed to Major or minor). I remember enough from high school music theory class to know that this is quite rare and leave it to a visionary like Miles Davis to explore it and bring it into the mainstream. Miles Davis will continue to be remembered for the gifts he gave to jazz and the boundaries he stretched, broke, or plain ignored. “So What”, for me and so many others, continues to serve as a very accessible bridge to a rich and rewarding canon of an American icon.