Thelonious Monk: Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 (CD Review)

Thelonious Monk

Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960

Saga/Sam Records/Universal

2xCD, LP, and digital formats

Thelonious Monk, piano, composer, arranger; Charlie Rouse, tenor saxophone; Barney Wilen, tenor saxophone; Sam Jones, double bass; Art Taylor, drums

Since its arrival at our house, this release has been in heavy rotation. After it seems as if everything that the famed modern bebop pianist Thelonious Monk put to record had been issued, a treasure like this surfaces: the pianist’s soundtrack for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the 1960 Roger Vadim film adapting Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ famous 1782 novel. Buoyant versions of Monk classics such as “Rhythm-a-Ning,” “Well You Needn’t,” and “Crepuscule with Nellie” are abetted by excellent soloing from two tenor saxophonists, Barney Wilen (in whose archives these recordings resided) and Charlie Rouse, a frequent partner of the pianist’s. Monk’s playing, varied here in approach from succulent balladry to rousing uptempo soloing, spurs on the rhythm section of bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor to ever more complex coordinations. A previously unissued cut, the gospel number “By and By” by Charles Albert Tindley, receives a particularly sensitive reading. The recording contains a bonus disc that features alternate takes and a quarter hour of the group rehearsing and discussing “Light Blue.” To top it all off, the sound is excellent. Heartily recommended.

Matt Mitchell plays Tim Berne (CD Review)

matt mitchell - forage

Matt Mitchell

FØRAGE

Screwgun Records

 

In recent years, saxophonist and composer Tim Berne has frequently collaborated with pianist Matt Mitchell, most notably in Snakeoil, a quartet in which the two are joined by clarinetist Oscar Noriega and percussionist Ches Smith. Thus, Mitchell approaches Berne’s music from a unique and intimate vantage point, one ideal for the first solo interpreter of Berne’s intricate compositions. On FØRAGE, the pianist incorporates Snakeoil tunes as well as other Berne works to craft an imaginative and exhilarating program.

 

“PÆNË” opens the recording with material from The Shell Game, Berne’s 2001 release for Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, on which the saxophonist performed with keyboardist Crag Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey in a trio called Hard Cell. The original rendition of the excerpted composition, “Thin Ice,” opens with spacey synths playing a decidedly angular version of a chord progression in straight quarters. Taborn is joined by an altissimo register sax solo that then moves suddenly downward into a wide-ranging post-bop excursion; all of this is reinforced by Rainey’s questing and aggressively punctuated drumming. Mitchell’s version distills the essence of “Thin Ice,” interpreting its 6/8 section with an imaginative gloss on all three musicians’ approaches from the original recording. Thus, the synthesizer’s chords are put into the middle and upper register of the piano in less rangy spacing. Rainey’s drumming is imitated by syncopated soprano register verticals. What was Berne’s melody glides between these two formidable layers (plus additional comping and bass notes to boot), supplying a gradually revealed essay of considerable interest.

 

On “TRĀÇĘŚ,” Mitchell reinterprets “Traction,” material from The Sublime And., a 2003 live release by another Berne band called Science Friction, a quartet with guitarist Marc Ducret joining Berne, Taborn, and Rainey. The most relentless cut on the album, it features incendiary lines from Ducret in tandem with a fierce ostinato from Berne that eventually evolves into a mayhem of upper register howls and bristling leaps. It is remarkable how, sans the amplification employed by Ducret and Taborn, Mitchell is able to create such a sizzling version of “Traction.” The pianist’s approach leaves little from the original to the imagination, encompassing a plethora of polyrhythms and unabating riffs as well as pointed soloing of his own. Even though inherently it is repurposed for the solo medium, the intensity of the original crackles here, never more so than in the endless, forceful rearticulations of the coda. “RÄÅY” also interprets music from the Sublime And.: here the piece is “Van Gundy’s Retreat,” a tune that in the original version combines an ebullient romp with passages of mysterious sostenuto. Mitchell employs “Van Gundy’s Retreat” as the latter half of “RÄÅY:” It begins with “Lame 3,” an established Berne composition that is slated for reinterpretation on the next Snakeoil recording. While rhythmically intricate like most of Berne’s work, it demonstrates a melodic delineation that is distinctive and memorable.

 

Mitchell amply demonstrates that he has made various regions of Berne’s voluminous catalog his own. Crucial as he was to its gestation, it is equally fascinating to hear him reinterpret the Snakeoil material. Both “ÀÄŠ” and “ŒRBS” consist entirely of compositions from the Snakeoil albums on ECM, and “CLØÙDĒ” combines “Spare Parts” from the first (2012) album with a reprise of the aforementioned 6/8 section of “Thin Ice.” In these compositions, one sometimes hears Mitchell channeling his bandmates’ solos and accompaniment, allowing their spirits to be present in his music-making. However, just as often, the pianist takes things in different directions, lingering over a riff or harmony here, inventing a new countermelody there. Thus, Mitchell untethers his playing from the more circumscribed role he undertakes in Snakeoil.

 

Even Berne aficianados are likely to be stumped by some of the material here, including a previously unrecorded cut, “Huevos Expanded,” the basis for “SÎÏÑ,” a fetching, impressionist tinged ballad that serves as the album’s closer.  Here Mitchell fashions undulating ostinatos and deftly pedaled passages to create whorls of colorful harmonies, buoyed by a gentle waft of swing. The piece serves as a reminder that, while at times the thread between them is tenuous, Berne’s work is not solely avant-garde in character; it also evinces connections to the modern jazz tradition.

 

As a whole, FØRAGE leaves one eager to take a two-pronged approach: first, delving further into Berne’s catalog to reevaluate his music afresh; second, to reacquaint oneself with Mitchell’s own compelling body of work. It is also exciting to learn that more things are afoot with Snakeoil. In the meantime, FØRAGE supplies a potent combination of  captivating compositions and abundant musicality. Recommended.

 

 

 

 

 

Mingus, Mingus, and More Mingus

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Mingus Mingus Mingus

I Am Three

Leo Records CD LR 752

The trio I Am Three, consisting of alto saxophonist Silke Eberhard, trumpeter Nikolaus Neuser, and drummer Christian Marien, interpret compositions by the late Charles Mingus on their debut release for Leo Records (Eberhard has previously recorded for the label with different configurations). Mingus is, of course, a totemic figure in jazz. But he was a musician whose work can be seen from many angles, ranging from the neo-traditional – blues and early jazz signatures abound in his work – to modern jazz and the “Third Stream” experiments of the 1950s and 60s. All of this coexists in a mélange of stylistic plurality that still retains an individual stamp.

Thus, one might rightly think that Mingus would be a difficult composer with whom to grapple. While at first the muscularity of some of his best pieces would seem to indicate a durability that would allow for an open approach, artists who distort or exaggerate one aspect of his compositions’ multifaceted nature do so at the peril of unbalancing his nearly inimitable sound world. That is, in part, what makes I Am Three’s interpretations of Mingus so remarkable. The group manages to capture the spirit of piece after piece from his output with detailed touches that show careful study of the originals. At the same time, they bring original flourishes to the table, mostly by pushing Mingus’s music a bit further “out” than its original conception might have been. All of this is accomplished without a bassist.

 

For example, if one places I Am Three’s rendition of “Orange was the Color of her Dress, then Blue Silk” alongside Mingus’ various recordings of it, in solo piano and full band settings, the sense of homage is clear. The syncopated chordal refrain is kept intact, as is the chirping treble register interjection – here by Neuser instead of Mingus’s piano –  juxtaposed against a loping swing saxophone solo by Eberhard. All the while Marien alternates between accentuating the refrains in unison with the horns and pushing the beat slightly ahead of them to better underscore the laconic character of the solos. This all eventually devolves into a tutti passage of free jazz howling, ironically capped off by a return of the refrain in slow swing time.

 

“Better Get Hit in Your Soul” loses the inimitable bass and piano parts. I Am Three dispenses the tune without imitating them, focusing instead on the enwrapped horn lines and revelling in the tune’s lively groove. Neuser’s growling muted trumpet intro is a memorable feature of “Fables of Faubus,” as his succeeding polyrhythmic duet with Eberhard.

 

On “Self Portrait in Three Colors,” Marien’s drumming takes on an almost rock-like heaviness. After a blistering upper register tutti, once again the horns play independently minded yet intertwining solo lines. “Canon” provides a natural album closer, demonstrating Mingus’ ability to employ rigorous compositional procedures while simultaneously placing them firmly in a traditional jazz vocabulary. Mingus, Mingus, Mingus was my favorite jazz release of 2016, one to which I continued to return with great pleasure for fresh insights. Recommended.