Hot Wax – August/September 2017

September 5, 2017

Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk Les Liaisons Dangereuses – 1960 (Sam Records)

  • Thelonious Monk – piano
  • Charlie Rouse – tenor saxophone
  • Sam Jones – bass
  • Art Taylor – drums
  • Barney Wilen – tenor saxophone
  • Double-Take

Take 1

Roger Vadim may never enter the pantheon of great French filmmakers, but we do have at least two important things to thank him for. In the mid-‘50s he introduced Brigitte Bardot to the world’s attention; later in the decade he tapped Thelonious Monk to contribute music for his film “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” Although the complete recordings of Monk’s contributions have never been officially released, sixteen tracks are now ours to savor, thanks to the intrepid jazz producer Zev Feldman. Originating from a peak creative period in Monk’s career, these unearthed gems add to our hopefully unending appreciation of this most uncommon of jazz geniuses.

On July 27,1959 the iconoclastic pianist and composer brought his quartet with Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, Sam Jones on bass and Art Taylor on drums and a ringer (Barney Wilen, a young French tenor saxophonist who had performed, as did Monk, at the Newport Jazz Festival earlier in the month) into New York’s famed Nola Studios. Unable to provide fresh original material for the session, Monk relied on his standard repertoire. Familiarity prompted relaxed yet vibrant performances. Variety and novelty came in the form of differing contexts, including arrangements for solo piano, trio, quartet, and quintet.

The ensemble’s performances are marked by notably focused and exuberant playing by all. Propelled by the no-nonsense drive of Jones and Taylor (neither of whom solo on these recordings), Monk bites into “Rhythm-a-Ning,” “Well You Needn’t,” “Pannonica,” “Light Blue” and “Ba-Lue Bolivar-Ba-Lues-Are” with concentration, wit, and imaginative eccentricity that clearly inspires Rouse and the added gun, Wilen, who holds his own on “Rhythm-a-Ning” and “Ba-Lue-Bolivar-Ba-Lues-Are,” two of the three tunes he augments. Monk is particularly energized, his arresting theme statements and improvisations characterized by a customary and judicious use of space, offset by jarring yet perfectly placed accents. Played against the straightforward momentum of Jones and Taylor’s unflappable beat, Monk’s deliberate melodic lines accelerate an attractive, positively riveting tension. If not revelatory – his work here is of a piece with such contemporary recordings as 5 by Monk by 5 and Thelonious Monk at the Blackhawk – Monk consistently demonstrates a luminosity that is in line with his most flavorful work of the period.

Two takes of “Crepuscule with Nellie” (one, a highlight of the album, featuring a trio with Jones and a lyrical Wilen) find Monk bringing concentrated attention to one of his favorite originals; his emotive reading of the melody (no Monk recording, not even those that included John Coltrane, allowed improvisation) abundantly demonstrates the affection and care he brought to interpretations of the piece. The gospel tune, “We’ll Understand It Better By and By,” here entitled “By and By,” unfolds with obvious fondness. A nearly 15-minute rehearsal tape of Monk guiding Taylor through his paces on “Light Blue”– a mechanically intoned drum beat ultimately yields a taste of unconventionality to the final take – offers up a blend of insight and near torture.

While the ensemble pieces produce tingles, the performances that spotlight the leader in full induce shivers. Two solo takes of “Pannonica,” the second of which is even more penetrating than the pleasing first version, are reasons in themselves for the project to be brought to light. Yet the gleaming prize of the album may be “Six in One,” a seemingly informal piano blues that, as the informative notes call attention to, is related to “Round Lights” which appears on Thelonious Alone In San Francisco, recorded in October of 1959. Modest in ambition, the riveting performance nonetheless reminds us how perfectly at home, and subsequently inspired, Monk was with an elemental blues. As downhome as he was sophisticated, Monk inhabited a musical world unto himself. Les Liaisons Dangereuses-1960 generously provides us with yet more clues to decipher his enthralling, inimitable artistry. (Steve Futterman)

Take 2

None of us were aware of it at the time, but 2014 would turn out to be an important moment of discovery surrounding the work of Thelonious Monk. Early in that year, while searching for never-before-heard recordings of French saxophonist Barney Wilen in the archives of jazz producer-programmer-columnist Marcel Romano, Sam Records’ Fred Thomas and Saga Jazz’s Francois Le Xuan were directed toward seven reels that happened to contain the music from Monk’s recordings for the soundtrack to Roger Vadim’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960.”  It was an extraordinary find, to say the least.

While approximately thirty minutes of Monk’s music on those reels has been heard by anyone and everyone who’s viewed the film in the past five-and-a-half decades, his soundtrack was never released and a good amount of choice material that initially ended up on the cutting room floor never received any audience at all. Now, less than three years since this material first surfaced, with the cooperation of the Monk family and the assistance of producer extraordinaire Zev Feldman, these recordings are finally coming to light as we celebrate the Thelonious Monk Centennial.      

The session that birthed this music – captured at New York’s Nola Penthouse Sound Studios on July 27, 1959 – came in the wake of triumph and turbulence well-documented in the annals of Monk. After dealing with a stretch of lean years in the early-to-mid ‘50s, he was finally hitting his stride with critically-hailed recordings like Brilliant Corners (Riverside, 1957), lengthy engagements at The Five Spot, profile-boosting magazine feature stories, and festival showings that would carry him through 1957 and much of 1958. But a run-in with the Delaware police in October of 1958 would cost Monk his cabaret card, stripping him of a major source of income; a poorly received big band concert at Town Hall in February of 1959, which would one day be seen as a musical milestone, would cost him his confidence and energy, and a misunderstanding at Boston’s Logan Airport in April of 1959, landing the pianist in a mental institution where he was first administered Thorazine, would cost him a good deal of clarity.

Those setbacks, coupled with a variety of other personal and professional losses, made it difficult for Monk to focus on the commitment he made to record a soundtrack for Vadim’s film. But persevere he did. No new music may have been prepared for the recording, but Monk took to the task of creating the perfect musical backdrop with relish. He rehearsed his band, polishing and tweaking selections from his usual repertoire to find the perfect way to underscore the essence of each scene and/or personality at play on the screen. Ultimately, he came up with solid gold. If the appearance of his music in the film didn’t make that impression clearly enough, this album certainly should.

This two-disc set finds Monk in peak expressive form. Everything from the excitable “Rhythm-A-Ning” opener to the quizzical-cum-cool “Crepuscule With Nellie” and the three sides of “Pannonica” – two solo, one quartet-based – to the easy swinging “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are” proves captivating. A few tracks in particular – a bluesy “Six In One” that serves as a precursor to “Round Lights,” the church-born “We’ll Understand It Better By And By,” and the only known studio take on “Light Blue” along with a lengthy fly-on-the-wall track documenting its creation – are likely to pique the curiosity of Monk aficionados and rarity seekers, but the album as a whole holds great appeal for the jazz masses. Historical releases just don’t get much better than this. (Dan Bilawsky)      

Melvin Sparks

Live at Nectar’s (One Note)

  • Melvin Sparks – electric guitar
  • Beau Sasser – organ
  • Dave Grippo – alto sax
  • Brian McCarthy – tenor sax
  • Bill Carbone – drums

When it comes to the soul-jazz stylists, it seems like the organists get the lion’s share of the glory – Charles Earland, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Jack McGriff, Joey DeFrancesco, movers and shakers all. But most organ combos have a guitarist, and Melvin Sparks (1946 – 2011) lived up to his name. He played and recorded with the aforementioned organ kings and sax masters Lou Donaldson and Houston Person besides. Live at Nektar’s is perhaps Sparks’ last testament, recorded December 2010, a mere few months before his passing.

While Sparks naturally had some influence from Wes Montgomery – in his day, who didn’t – but this Texas-bred fellow absorbed aspects of Southwestern blues styles. He had a pointed yet buoyant style, peeling out those fat single notes with plenty of blues and rhythm & blues flourishes. (Before his jazz days, Sparks played with proto-R&B/rockers Hank Ballard and Little Richard.) Which is not to imply he couldn’t be suave and classy—listen to the way Sparks, more than the drummer, establishes the infectious groove of “Miss Riverside.” Continuing, Sparks peppers his solo with spiky interjections and brief dissonances. Organist Beau Sasser does some fine cooking herein, coaxing that chunky, BBQ sauce-thick Hammond tone to do his talking for him, recalling the wizards of the Hammond B-3 without aping them. The way that Sparks, Sasser, and drummer Bill Carbone lock into an urgent groove is a wonder to behold (assuming you like solid grooves, mind you).

Lovers of old-school R&B are in for a treat – The Four Tops’ hit “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I’ve Got” is given a truly exultant treatment, displaying devotion to the original melody but determined to put their own mark upon it. Sparks’ sax-guys get to wail. This lot sound like a working band, functioning as a unit as opposed to a leader-with-accompanists/just-for-tonight’s-gig feel. The manner in which he remakes George Benson’s mega-hit “Breezin’” is a marvel, too – while keeping the sunshiny-day ambiance of the song, Sparks gives it some blues hues and genial rock-inflected dissonances in his solo while Carbone and Sasser give the groove a dense, swinging heft. Like funk straight-up, uncut, all killer, no filler? “Fire Eater” is a punchy, (dare I say) danceable slice of strut with a melodic hook as immediate as anything by the Meters and early Earth Wine & Fire. Sparks wrenches a few dirty-sounding and angular clusters of notes, never losing that driving momentum and Sasser amiably seethes when he’s not carving granite-hard slabs of sonic glory.

If someone turns up his/her nose at groove-oriented jazz, saying that it’s not gritty or creative (read: tres avant, or unlistenable for most people) enough for them, play Live at Nectar’s for (or at) them. They may thank you for it. (Mark Keresman)

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