Monk: Civil Rights and Unearthed Delights

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

Slightly inaccessible and highly quirky, Thelonious Sphere Monk holds a special place in my jazz collection. He was of the ilk who went by a single moniker, Monk. He was cool beyond cool—a true individualist and jazz ambassador all at once. Monk didn’t just think outside the box; he ripped it up and threw it away. There was no doubt he was a musical genius and because of it a genius magnet, attracting vanguard collaborators the likes of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Gerry Mulligan.

Monk didn’t just think outside the box; he ripped it up and threw it away.

Monk was one of the first jazz artists I started collecting and it was his brief stint on Blue Note Records that reeled me in. Don’t get me wrong, I adore his sessions on Prestige with Sonny Rollins and especially his time on Columbia, but listening to the two-part “Genius of Modern Music” sessions one can gain early-career insight and a glimpse into the mind of a prodigy. Also, these recordings showcase early performances of some of Monk’s most enduring jazz compositions, including “Ruby, My Dear”, “In Walked Bud”, “‘Round Midnight”, “Well, You Needn’t” and “Straight, No Chaser”, all of which are considered jazz standards.

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Hipsters unite! Impulse! offers this historic release on CD or as a handsome 180 gram vinyl set. There was a good deal of design and research that went into this package and it shows with the attention to detail one would expect from Impulse! Records. Includes two booklets and a poster.

Monk played differently and thought differently and that’s what makes him so endearing to listen to and collect. So, when I heard about a July 31 release on Impulse! of an unissued 1968 live performance I was beside myself. And what a venue—a high school auditorium! The music, at least the one track I’ve been able to preview, is excellent and is to be expected. Monk’s established 60s quartet is in tow, including Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, Larry Gales on bass, and Ben Riley on drums. The interplay is that of a seasoned group—relaxed, angular and swinging, not unlike that of Monk’s contemporary releases on Columbia Records.

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Monk and fellow jazz giant, Dizzy Gillespie, cutting up. Circa 1960s. Photo by Jim Marshall.

The audio fidelity is surprisingly strong and clear given the recording was engineered by a high school janitor. Which leads me to the amazing story behind this historic recording. Danny Scher, a Jewish 16-year-old jazz fan, wanted to book Monk for a benefit performance at his high school auditorium in Palo Alto, California, a predominantly white town 40 minutes outside of San Francisco. The year was 1968, a time not unlike our own, with riots over racism and social inequality. The Vietnam War had no end in sight and Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had just been assassinated—the country was still in mourning and being torn apart at the seams. And in the midst of this torrent of cultural upheaval an olive branch was extended and accepted. The Monk Quartet agreed to play and Scher got to work promoting the concert which would take him into neighboring East Palo Alto, a predominantly African-American community. Scher hung posters next to advertisements promoting a referendum on changing the town name to Nairobi. Notwithstanding the surrounding racial tension, the Monk performance brought the two towns together. The concert, including a 14-minute version of “Blue Monk”, was serendipitously recorded by the janitor who offered his services if he also promised to tune the school piano. And thanks to that still unidentified jazz fan, in addition to the work of Danny Scher, Monk’s estate and Impulse! Records, we’re able to partake in this historic concert 52 years later.

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Jazz Collecting: Artists & Labels

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

After suffering the impacts of the pandemic, namely unemployment and quarantine, I, like many others, have afforded myself some time. And time is definitely something one can use more of when collecting jazz. So, with this extra time at home I’ve been able to take stock of my personal collection. To be fair, it’s not one of those vast collections where you need a separate listening room or zip code to appreciate. It’s relatively modest but stocked with artists and labels that I believe merit repeated listening.

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Like many other collectors, my entrée into Hard Bop was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on Blue Note Records. My first jazz album purchase was “At the Cafe Bohemia – Volume One”. I have to confess, not knowing much about the genre at the time and being a designer, I chose it simply for its typographic cover—a decision I never regretted. Thank you, John Hermansader.

As for the actual recordings, I’m one of those collectors who, for the most part, sticks to certain labels for the bulk of his collection. ECM and Blue Note Records are great examples of this approach. Rule of thumb, if you find one or two artists you really enjoy on one label there’s a good chance you’ll find more—appreciation through chance discovery. Although with certain artists, Bill Evans for example, labels matter less. If you follow an artist throughout his or her career you’ll find that oftentimes they skip around—usually pursuing the best contract or more creative freedom.

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A true visionary in every sense of the word, Miles Davis trailblazed the far reaches of jazz. His second great quintet, including Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, represents the quintessential modern jazz group in my book—conceptual, explorative and intelligent.

As with Bill Evans, you’ll find a fanbase that rallies around a particular period in the recording career of an artist. Take the distinguished career of Miles Davis, there are diehard fans of Miles’ first great quintet and their associated record label, Prestige. Others may gravitate toward Miles’ second great quintet on Columbia Records or his later electric outings on the same label. John Coltrane is another artist who produced many divided camps. He had a successful early solo career on Prestige and Blue Note, then moved to Atlantic with his first great quartet in the early-60s, and then Impulse! Records in the mid-60s which found him exploring more avant-garde avenues with personnel that would prove to be in flux.

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The often imitated Bill Evans has made his way back into my collection for over twenty years. One can easily hear echoes of Evans in the works of many contemporary artists. His years on the Riverside label with his first trio are still one of my favorite periods of his—romantic, subtle and introspective. If you’re not already familiar with Evans, try spinning a couple of his critically-acclaimed albums, “Portrait in Jazz” (1960) and “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” (1961).

If you’re a completist, like myself, you’ll collect from every recording period of a favorite artist—oftentimes picking and choosing particular albums based on year recorded, personnel or audio fidelity. Bill Evans, one of my perennial favorites, definitely falls into the multi-period, multi-label category. His first trio on the Riverside label, featuring Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, defined the gold standard for jazz trios. A deft and cohesive unit famous for anticipating each others’ actions. After the untimely death of bassist, Scott LaFaro (one of my personal jazz heroes), Bill Evans began to move around with solo and trio stints on Verve, Blue Note, Fantasy and Warner. There are hardcore first trio fans who only swear by the early Riverside recordings as a measure of Bill Evans’ improvisational genius. As for myself, I can appreciate all his outings, be it solo, trio or third stream. If you find an artist who really hits a chord you’ll follow him or her anywhere.

If you’re a completist, like myself, you’ll collect from every recording period of a favorite artist—oftentimes picking and choosing particular albums based on year recorded, personnel or audio fidelity.

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Keith Jarrett, a virtuoso pianist with an uncanny ability to improvise lengthy solo concerts, gained his global following on the ECM label. Although he led groundbreaking groups, including his long-lived trio, he became best known for his solo output. His massive “Sun Bear Concerts” 1978 box set, showcasing over six-and-a-half hours of very personal music, is an achievement hard to be matched by any performing artist, past or present.

By following an artist from one label to another one can also experience the creative growth an artist achieves. Some Coltrane fans lament his move to Impulse! Records as it would eventually showcase his interest in spiritualism and the avant-garde which, regrettably, shed some of his followers who were only interested in his modal music. Another artist who would truly come into his own because of his association with a particular label is Keith Jarrett. His early career as sideman to jazz masters Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis on various labels would eventually jettison him to a famed solo career starting at Atlantic Records in the late-60s. But it wasn’t till his move to ECM in 1971, for an astonishing 49-year partnership, where he would flourish and rise to international fame with unprecedented live solo recordings such as Solo Concerts: Bremen and Lausanne (1973), The Köln Concert (1975), The Sun Bear Concerts (1976/78), and Concerts: Bregenz/München (1982).

So, be it artist-centric or label-centric, starting and maintaining a jazz collection will always prove fruitful, especially if the listener devotes time to enjoy the fruits.

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Donald Byrd’s Transitional Period

By Carl Glatzel, Editor
Photograph by Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images.

In the wake of jazz great Donald Byrd’s passing, there has been a revived interest in his critically-acclaimed Hard Bop period as well as his later involvement with funk and disco. There is a time between years 1969 and 1972 that is oftentimes overlooked — I like to call this Byrd’s transitional period. It was during these explorative years that electric instruments as well as a much more relaxed compositional style were introduced.

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Fancy Free, 1970

Byrd’s 1970 release, Fancy Free, offers a larger ensemble than previous recordings including key creative partner Duke Pearson on electric piano. Some call this abrupt end to hard bop stylings a knee-jerk reaction to the sparks that came from Miles Davis’ release In a Silent Way just a few months prior. Although not earth shattering as Davis’ effort, Fancy Free marks a significant change in direction for the hard bop trumpeter. The title track itself proved to be a favorite cover to such contemporaries as Elvin Jones and Grant Green, both on the Blue Note label.

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Electric Byrd, 1970

Davis’ 1970 release, Bitches Brew, opened a Pandora’s Box with regard to shifting the jazz paradigm and the dawn of jazz fusion. This powerful influence was felt in Byrd’s 1970 release Electric Byrd. Here we find Byrd in full experimental mode complete with post production studio effects. The material leaned to a floating, cerebral compositional style with less focus on groove and backbeat. Decidedly a brave outing by an even larger band consisting of 11 members. Davis sideman, Airto Moreira, keeps a tight bond to the Dark Prince as he lays down complex percussion over Brazilian themes. Collaborator Duke Pearson is back on electric piano adding to a very stylized and dreamy soundscape. Reedmen Frank Foster and Lew Tabackin are also in tow. After much free-form improvisation and Davis leanings we do get a taste of plain funk with final track “The Dude”. It shores up the album as if to put listeners at ease after the storm of pioneering uncertainty.

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Kofi, 1971

Along comes 1971 and Byrd releases yet another stellar session, Kofi. Regulars, Tabackin and Foster are heard here along with legendary bassist Ron Carter and percussionist Airto Moreira. The title tune nears 8 minutes and is a burner, it easily earns its Blue Note Rare Groove monicker. The rest of the album covers more adventurous territory. Most tracks hark back to the heady sound of Electric Byrd with its use of space and percussion supplied by magician Airto. Heavy electric piano dominates arrangements with Byrd’s airy trumpet gliding on top like a hawk riding a thermal. The album ends on Foster’s composition “The Loud Minority” which rings like a dark interval from the Buddy Rich Big Band songbook.

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Ethiopian Knights, 1972

Many critics will end Byrd’s transitional sessions here but I like to include the excellent 1972 release Ethiopian Knights. On this album we find Byrd delving into a dark jazz-laden funk. This is not the vocal-tinged upbeat funk of Black Byrd and definitely not the polarizing disco from down the road. This recording still owes indebtedness to Miles Davis and his experiments with funk elements at the time. There are still lengthy solos here along with a lot of electric bass and a barrage of drums. With only three tracks this album blows away many straight-up funk contemporaries with its hard-driving beats and surgical precision. All three Byrd-penned pieces are more singularly focused than their free-wheeling predecessors. Two long tracks, “The Emperor” and “The Little Rasti”, sandwich the 3-1/2 minute “Jamie” — an interlude piece which offers to cleanse the palette in between double helpings of multilayered funk.

After sitting back with these four excellent outings one can appreciate Byrd’s intent to experiment and reach. He still maintains a firm footing in hard bop interplay and virtuosity, added is his uncanny ability to mix electronics and funk elements to great effect. With so many artists indebted to him for his creative genius, pioneering spirit and focus on education Donald Byrd will be sorely missed.

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