Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane Play “Monk’s Mood”

Listen to this track by jazz piano innovator and famous eccentric Thelonious Monk along with his equally celebrated musical partner by the time this was recorded, John Coltrane. It’s “Monk’s Mood”, a cut that would appear on the bona fide buried treasure Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane Live At Carnegie Hall.

This rendition of the song was cut live at the famous venue (how do you get there? Practice, man, practice …) at the tail end of 1957 in two sets on the same night. During several months that same year, Monk and Coltrane collaborated in a quartet along with bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and drummer Shadow Wilson. Monk had cut this tune in trio form in the studio with Coltrane (along with bassist Wilbur Ware) on his otherwise-solo piano album Thelonious Himself earlier that same year in April.

By the time they recorded the Carnegie Hall date, the band had Monk’s famously idiosyncratic composition style down pat, with amazing clarity and precise musical alignment particularly between him and Coltrane. This piece is like a dance between sax and piano, with steps that may be odd in places, but are always elegant. The most amazing part of all of this was that this music was almost not heard at all outside of the live audience who attended the date, and certainly not because the music isn’t absolutely sublime. Before a wider audience could hear it, it needed to be found –  literally. Read more

John Coltrane Plays “Psalm” From A Love Supreme

John Coltrane A Love SupremeListen to this track by towering spiritual saxophonist and jazz immortal John Coltrane. It’s “Psalm”, the last movement in his 1965 magnum opus A Love Supreme.

The track, along with the rest of the record was recorded with what is now known as his classic quartet; Jimmy Garrison on bass, McCoy Tyner on piano, and Elvin Jones on drums. With the almost psychic connection between these musicians, the whole record gels gloriously, coming to be what it was intended to be; a statement of ultimate gratitude by its author.

But, before the music was laid down on an album that is now considered to be Coltrane’s artistic pinnacle, it required one thing before it could be born: solitude. Read more

John Coltrane Quartet Plays “Greensleeves” AKA “What Child Is This?”

Listen to this track by saxophone immortal John Coltrane and his classic quartet (Elvin Jones on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and McCoy Tyner on piano). It’s the perennial holiday favourite “What Child Is This”, or as it is credited: “Greensleeves”, with those two pieces having the same melody, with lyrics added by hymn writer William Chatterton Dix in 1865.

This song was recorded during a specific and very celebrated phase in Coltrane’s career, when things were really gelling with his band, many of whom believe was the greatest collection of musicians in jazz over a long-term recording period between 1961 and 1965. This period corresponded with Coltrane’s work on the Impulse! label, with whom he’d stay until his untimely death from liver cancer in 1967.

The song itself has an even older pedigree than Coltrane’s classic period of course. It has been connected with King Henry VIII, he who provided a number of creative ways to get out of being married during a time when that wasn’t an easy thing to do. In the meantime, evidently, he was a songwriter. I’m not so sure about  the facts on that one. It seems kind of unlikely to me.

But, whatever.

It’s a melancholic, beautiful little tune no matter who wrote it. “Greensleeves” is about being rejected by a true love, which is a pretty solid theme no matter what era it comes out of. And in a Christmas context as “What Child Is This?”, it’s used to tell the story of the birth of Jesus; not just about the joy of that event, but also through its minor key suggests the shadow of human brokeness, too. So what makes Coltrane’s take on that so compelling? Read more

John Coltrane Plays “My Favourite Things”

John ColtraneAmong the list of jazz excursions beyond the 10-minute mark, there are some pieces of music that you wish would go on and on more than others. One of my favourites (perhaps pun intended) is the John Coltrane Quartet’s 1960 version of “My Favourite Things” a 13+ minute tune from the Sound of Music, and the title track to the Quartet’s album. This is not only because of Coltrane’s tantalizing soprano saxophone lines, but also McCoy Tyner’s minimalist and languid piano. And this is not to mention the rhythm section of the immortal Elvin Jones who explores complementary drum flourishes, while bassist Steve Davis lays down the bedrock.

Take a look at Coltrane in action.

Marvelous.

image courtesy of vanveen1967

I think one of the reasons that this period was so fertile is not just the incredible base of talent that was behind it in terms of musicianship. I think it had to do with the fact that any song was subject to exploration in the jazz idiom at that time. Jazz during this period is characterized by almost limitless imagination in terms of what material translates well in jazz playing, no matter if it’s Gershwin, Rodgers & Hammerstein, or the blues. With Herbie Hancock’s recent release of his grammy-winning River: the Joni Letters, I hope that we see a resurgence of jazz as a more mainstream cultural force as it once was, pulling materials from a wide range of sources beyond the standards of the 30s through to the 50s.

Epiphanies in Jazz – Miles Davis and ‘Kind of Blue’

Miles Davis Kind of BlueThe main thing written about this gathering of jazz giants was that it was the beginning of what was called “modal” jazz, which later became “the new thing” in the next decade. Talking about that aspect of things would require me to know something about the difference between improvising around scales and improvising around chord changes. I’m sure a musicologist would be able to write a book on why Kind of Blue is such a groundbreaking benchmark in the development of jazz. But, I’m not a musicologist. I’m just a fan. I am just a person who heard “So What” once on a cheap Columbia compilation album and was musically grabbed by my lapels and shaken to my shoes. I am a person who never knew that jazz could be this cool, in every sense of the word. It is music that is both cerebral because of its complexity, and visceral because of its ability to swing. It dances on the knife’s edge of intellectual pursuit and irrational, ineffable feeling.

The parties involved are legends in their own right; the equivalent of Elvis, The Killer, The Georgia Peach, Buddy, Chuck and Bo swinging by a studio and making a record together. But where the morass of egos may have short circuited any hope of such communal greatness from the rock world of the time, the jazz equivalents seem to be able to put the music to the forefront, while infusing it with something of their own personalities at the same time. You hear Miles’ trumpet and you can imagine it skimming on the surface of the next big movement, daring the others to join the chase. You can hear Trane’s darkness and spiritual turbulence. You can hear Cannonball’s affability and playfulness. You can hear Bill Evans academic and stolid anchor in musical theory playing in and out of the blues-devoted rhythm section of drummer Jimmy Cobb and session stalwart bassist Paul Chambers. Everything is in its place, no one element being more important and prominent than the other, despite the magnitude of the persons involved. It’s there in every note and pause and nothing is wasted.

The opener, “So What” builds from Evans’ impressionist piano lines, bolstered by Chambers almost menacing bass. When the horns enter the scene, they are not the frenetic voices of the be-bop days of old; they are lilting and minimalist, adding to the building tension that has been established in the intro, as elements and not as dominant lines. The urgency of bop and the bombast of the big band sound are subverted and turned on their heads in turn, answering dexterity with efficiency, grandiosity with musical subtext. Where a solo may have once been measured by its ability to reinforce a theme, it serves here to build on what has started from nothing. It would not supplant the need for melody, but it would open the possibilities for musicians to bring out many melodies, some heard on first listen and others heard after years of hearing the record.

It is in this respect that Kind of Blue is timeless. In the expression embedded in the solos, the moment is conveyed, the spark of creativiMiles Davisty of artists gathering together is communicated, and you’re there too within the conversation as you listen. The romanticism of Bill Evan’s “Blue in Green”, the mischievous waltz time of “All Blues” (which is nothing of the sort!), the exotic flavorings of Flamenco Sketches, and the easy-going “Freddy Freeloader” all come together as simple yet eloquent exchanges between musicians with considerable sonic vocabularies. They make it sound so easy, and as listeners we are drawn into it, not realizing that a revolution has just taken place until we think on it after the record is over. Then, we want to play it again, just to be sure we’ve heard everything there is to hear. Of course, we don’t. We can’t. There is lyricism, personality, emotion on various levels, and some can only be heard when a listener is paying attention, and some can only be absorbed when the listener is not. One might expect a record where melody and chord changes are secondary to be nothing but egotism on the part of the musicians, but the opposite is true. It involves you. It marks you and raises the bar in what you come to expect from the form. It comes as no surprise that the results would take jazz in directions that many within that world as well as outside it feared to go in the next decade – to freeform, to electric instruments, and back to Africa where it was born. It is no surprise, that these musical conversations between giants should start a revolution as all revolutions start this way – masters talking in a room with a unified vision, unafraid to embrace the future.

Further Listening

  • Something Else by Cannonball Adderley. A year previous to the Kind of Blue sessions, Miles played on alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s classic album , which showed some of the more relaxed, lighter side of Davis’ playing. In many ways, it foreshadowed the tone of KoB – relaxed, cool, and playful. This is a great place to start for a jazz newbie.
  • Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis & Gil Evans. This isn’t technically a jazz record, although it certainly incorporates jazz improvisation. Evans arranged Concerto De Aranjuez, and a selection of pieces similar in tone, for a small orchestra and invited Davis to add his own improvised lines. The result is a sensual, slightly menacing, and ultimately triumphant effort which stands as a career highpoint for everyone involved.
  • In A Silent Way by Miles Davis. By the end of the 1960s, Davis’ musical curiosity took him even further away from where he’d started in hard-bop and cool. IASW is a stand alone record in many ways – a rest stop between the jazz of the past, and the development of jazz fusion of which Davis was a prime architect. This record, like Kind of Blue, cherishes feel over structure, texture over shape. The approach results in a record that is a celebration of the use of space in music; an atmospheric, dreamy ride that comes off as the first hints of Ambient.

Hear Miles Davis and John Coltrane play ‘So What’.

Hover over the image and click the ‘play’ icon. To enlarge the viewing window, click the magnifying glass icon. Enjoy!

Miles DAvis