A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

In October 1958, a Steve Lacy-led quartet (Mal Waldron, piano; Buell Neidlinger, bass; Elvin Jones, drums) recorded seven tunes by Thelonious Monk for Bob Weinstock’s label New Jazz (an offshoot of Prestige). According to discographers Reflections was the first all-Monk program released by anyone other than Monk himself, a daring, ambitious, and challenging achievement. But what isn’t as widely recognized is that in January 1957, nearly two years earlier, a 19-year-old French tenor saxophonist named Bernard “Barney” Wilen had recorded six Monk tunes – “Hackensack,” “Blue Monk,” “Misterioso,” “Think of One,” “We See,” and “Let’s Call This” – the first four of which appeared on the B side of the LP Tilt (Vogue Jazz/Swing). The remaining two titles, along with alternate takes of “Hackensack” and “Blue Monk,” were included on the 1998 Sony Music/France CD reissue as Tilt + 6. (The original album’s side A offered more familiar fare: “Blue ‘n’ Boogie,” “Nature Boy,” “My Melancholy Baby,” “A Night in Tunisia,” and “The Way You Look Tonight.”)

It’s not that Wilen’s album is completely unknown – though its rarity caused a vinyl copy to be sold on eBay in 2004 for $2,700 (no, there’s not a missing decimal point) – but it seems to have flown under most of the jazz community’s radar for too long. So let’s examine the evidence (so to speak). Tilt was recorded in two sessions. The first, the five tunes on side A, from January 7th, found Wilen accompanied by pianist Maurice Vander, bassist Gilbert “Bibi” Rovère, and drummer Al Levitt. The second, waxing all the Monk tunes, occurred four days later, and replaced Vander with Jack (or Jacky) Cnudde, and Levitt with Charles Saudrais. Why the shift in personnel? Well, it’s possible that Cnudde was responsible for convincing Wilen to tackle such a big hunk of Monk. Almost no biographical information is available for Cnudde, but I did discover, in liner notes by Peter Lafargue to the album Les Frères Ferret: Les Gitans de Paris 1938-56 (Frémeaux & Associés) – documenting the guitar trio of brothers Baro, Sarane, and Matelo Ferret – that Cnudde had been a serviceable swing pianist in Paris until he heard Thelonious, at which point he altered his style into something resembling that of his new idol and started a group called The Jazz Modernisticks. Cnudde, and perhaps Wilen as well, may have seen Monk at his appearance at the 1954 Paris Jazz Festival. On the other hand, it’s also possible that it was all Wilen’s idea, and he recruited Cnudde as the French pianist most comfortable with the material he wanted to cover. In any case, the six tunes (totaling 33 minutes, not counting the alternates) would have been just about enough to fill a 1957 LP, but keep in mind the producers already had half an album they wouldn’t want to waste, and were most likely wary of putting all their eggs in a basket of Monk covers, especially given his iffy popularity in France at this point in time (remember, the Riverside and Columbia classics were still to come, the press hadn’t yet decided if he was a prophet or a poseur, and his inebriated opening night appearance at the aforementioned Paris Jazz Fest probably didn’t win him many new fans locally). Which accounts for the divided release and two perfectly good performances (“We See” and “Let’s Call This”) being left off the album – thus depriving Wilen of an additional claim to fame.

Until his passing in 1996, Wilen had a long and fruitful career in Europe, with an especially auspicious beginning. Once family friend (and poet) Blaise Cendrars convinced him, against his parents’ wishes, to follow his musical interests, American jazz stars quickly confirmed his talent. He made his recording debut on disc in 1954 (age 17!) under the leadership of drummer Roy Haynes, and in 1956 was chosen (along with guitarist Sacha Distel) by John Lewis to front the MJQ rhythm section (Afternoon In Paris,Atlantic). Several months after recording Tilt he was a member of the band that Miles Davis led through three weeks of European concerts, and he participated on the soundtrack Miles recorded for the film Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud. Curiously enough, it was another French film soundtrack, for the Roger Vadim-directed Les liasons dangereuses, which allowed Wilen to work with Monk himself in 1959, albeit through a confusing turn of events. It seems Vadim and music coordinator Marcel Romano wanted Monk to compose the music for the film, but Monk was typically evasive. By the time they could pin him down, the film had been shot, using drummer Kenny Clarke, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, pianist Duke Jordan, bassist Paul Rovère (Bibi’s brother), and Wilen, as part of a party scene. Thus, when Vadim and Romano came to New York in July ‘59 to sign Monk to a contract, they also needed different music to set into the party scene. Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers – with Wilen sitting in, and music by Duke Jordan – were lined up to provide that portion of the soundtrack. According to Robin D.G. Kelley in his Monk bio, Vadim and Romano screened the film for Monk, and he finally agreed but, possibly because of the delay, composed nothing new. He did supply Vadim with at least seven of his tunes (information is sketchy), recorded specifically for the film with his quartet of the day (the recently hired Charlie Rouse, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Art Taylor) – and second tenorman Barney Wilen, who was in America following his performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. Was Wilen recommended to Monk by Romano? Had Monk heard Wilen play his music on Tilt? We don’t know. Furthermore, the subsequent Les liasons dangereuses soundtrack LP included only Jordan’s music for the Jazz Messengers. The Monk session, with Wilen, though used in the film has apparently never been issued on disc.

All that aside, what does Tilt sound like? The opening set of standards shows the teenaged Wilen tenor sax coming out of the swing-to-bop bag, his youthful enthusiasm and drive calling to mind incendiary players like Allen Eager, Stan Getz, and Dexter Gordon at similar early points in their careers, though not quite at their level of inspiration. He exhibits a lean and hungry tone, and his solos visit interesting places, leaping through octaves and injecting the occasional quirky quotation (Bird songs, okay, but Offenbach?). The way he sails through “The Way You Look Tonight” is especially impressive. But, for the most part, the Monk tunes are even better. Wilen translates curiosity into intensity (could the otherwise unexplainable album title Tilt be his comment on Monk’s off-kilter perspective?), and this rhythm section scores points for appropriateness if not originality. That is to say, drummer Saudrais borrows some of Art Blakey’s rim-rattling accents and Kenny Clarke-via-Gene Krupa’s bass drum and tom thumping, while pianist Cnudde contributes sparse, understated, abstracted interludes in contrast to Wilen’s rollicking frolic, as on the uptempo groove of “Hackensack” (his phrasing is closest to Monk’s blueprint on the alternate take), or “Misterioso,” where his timing is echt-Monk. Meanwhile, it’s interesting to consider that Wilen must have learned the tunes off of Monk’s recordings – “Hackensack” and “We See” with Frank Foster on tenor, “Think of One” and “Let’s Call This” featuring Sonny Rollins, “Misterioso” and “Blue Monk” sans sax – and yet he never mimics the originals; in fact, the irony in Wilen’s playing here is how closely it anticipates the approach Charlie Rouse would take. Although Rouse first recorded with Monk on a 45-rpm release backing the obscure vocalist Frankie Passions in 1951, he didn’t become a fixture in the band until 1959. Yet Wilen’s frequent impulsive double-timing, melodic curlicues, and on-the-beat security are a spooky foreshadowing of things to come.

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“They say improvisation is a school for freedom. ...  A musician is not free instrumentally. Improvisation is based on the instantaneous gesture, but it needs a reason, it has its weight, its time, its moment, if not, it’s total anarchy. If there is anyone who is not free, it’s the instrumentalist, he has his technique, and then he has things to do, quickly, very quickly. In fact, you have to be continually on the ball for this music, it’s a constant creative state, a state of openness and revolt.”

So says Joëlle Léandre in her book of comments to Frank Médioni, Solo (Kadima Collective, 2011). Solo is a good title for the book; although she admits she prefers to perform in a duo or group because of the interaction and communication that takes place, she acknowledges the existential position into which the free improviser is put, and attempts to explain her singular mode of operation, her feelings and intellectual perspective, by means of philosophical concepts of discipline, responsibility, awareness, and transcendence (“We become sound when we improvise”), some developed through her close working relationships with composer/philosophers John Cage and Giacinto Scelsi, others derived from her own personal experiences. The book is a kind of free-associative meditation on her life and chosen profession, with plenty of metaphors and allusions, asides and flights of fantasy, as she drifts through memories and repeats thoughts, leaps over contradictions and digs into her beliefs, allowing her passion, anger, and strength to shine – much in the manner of her musical processes. She has a love/hate relationship with the acoustic bass, describing it as a tractor (for heavy-duty planting of creative seeds), a broomstick, a cross. Rebellion is an important part of her identity (she quotes the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze: “To create is to resist”), as a feminist, a tenacious artist intending to upset the status-quo, an artisan who works with her hands and revels in the physicality of her effort, and a musician who outgrew a traditional conservatory training, embraced the experimental fervor of the classical avant-garde, and ultimately discovered her own voice in the art of free improvisation.

Watching Joëlle Léandre at work is as necessary to understanding who she is as reading her words, so the inclusion of a DVD of her 2009 solo performance at the Guelph Jazz Festival is illuminating. Her performances are more ritual than recital; her face reflects how, as she suggests in the quotation above, she becomes caught up in the act of initiating a sound and then responding to it, her breath expresses a lyrical impulse, or song sometimes seems to be pulled from her throat. She alternately attacks and caresses her instrument. The music is not composed or designed, but intuitively built from (sometimes literally) scratch. Though she displays a wide range of conventional and unorthodox techniques they are used to construct a characterization of sound – that is, the combination of the physicality of the effort, the breadth of timbres and textures that result, and the psychological gesture of the moment creates what Léandre calls the music’s dramaturgy.

No doubt, the nature of free improvisation (as opposed to free jazz, or any other form of improvisation) can support as many different methodologies as there are participants. Solo is a revealing view of Léandre’s approach, commitment, and motivation, as vulnerable as it is amusing (such as her brief anecdote about playing with Anthony Braxton), and helps to explain how and why she has been able to survive, and thrive, through more than 40 years as a musical nomad.

Art Lange©2015

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