A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman, Jazz em Agosto 2007                   Joaquiim Mendes©2007

For a couple of years now my friend Peter Kostakis and I have programmed and co-hosted a weekly radio show, entitled “Writers’ Bloc”—we inherited the name, and the time slot, from its founders, John Corbett, Kevin Whitehead, and Lloyd Sachs. (Shameless plug: you can hear the show online, Mondays from 10 am – 1 pm, Chicago time, via www.wnur.org.) Two months ago we began devoting a segment of the show to covers of Monk tunes—other people interpreting his compositions. I guess we thought we’d run dry of interesting versions after a few weeks, but there’s no end in sight. Of course, there was a time when Monk’s compositions were considered too weird, too difficult, or too obscure to become part of jazz’s popular repertory—we’re all familiar with how Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd helped mythologize their reputations with a band that concentrated solely on Monk tunes, still largely uncharted territory in the early ‘60s. In fact, Lacy was likely the first musician other than the man himself to record an all-Monk album, in 1958 (Reflections, for New Jazz), followed not so closely by Bud Powell (A Portrait of Thelonious, Columbia) and Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis (Lookin’ at Monk, Jazzland), both in ’61, barely pre-dating the Lacy/Rudd enterprise.

Since then dozens, perhaps hundreds, of such tribute albums have been released; it’s now a point of honor to cut your instrumental teeth on Monk tunes. And there are, literally, thousands of individual Monk covers out there. I took a glance at the www.allmusic.com website recently, which purports to list all of the recorded versions of any song you can think of: jazz, rock, rap, r&b, blues, classical, whatever. There I found 1,165 entries for “‘Round Midnight” (and another 214 for “’Round About Midnight”), a surprising amount that outnumbered even some of the more popular “standards” like “I Got Rhythm” (1015), “How High the Moon” (985), and “Love for Sale” (970)—not taking into account, naturally, all of the variant jazz lines composed on these particular chordal structures—and in the ball park with other “classics” like “Take the ‘A’ Train” (1,120), “Honeysuckle Rose” (1,179), and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (1,012), albeit dwarfed by “Body and Soul” (2,089). Even Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” (847) paled in comparison.

“’Round Midnight” is easily Monk’s greatest hit (and for now, anyway, let’s not get into the Cootie Williams authorship question). His numbers drop precipitously after it—but still hold their own among jazz tunes. For example, “Well You Needn’t” (280) seems to be his next most-recorded, then “Straight, No Chaser” (269), “Blue Monk” (260), and “Evidence” (247). For comparison, there’s Coltrane’s “Naima” (300), Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” (275), Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” (212), and Milt Jackson’s “Bags’ Groove” (199). (Remember, this is an unscientific, random survey that I conducted off the top of my head, for whatever that’s worth.) Sheer numbers aside, the point seems to be that Monk tunes are today solidly represented in the jazz repertory. But the important question is how—and not how often—they are performed. Pick up as many Monk tribute albums as you like, and what you’ll find is that the great majority of musicians interpret the material according to their own performance style, and not necessarily in any particularly Monkish manner—that is, reflecting something inherent in the nature of the composition itself. (Monk having composed these pieces with his own instrumental conception at hand.)

Contrary to the tradition of classical music interpretation, where the responsibility of the performer is primarily to provide a representation as close to the composer’s intent as possible, jazz has always celebrated freedom of interpretation—you tell your own story, in Lester Young’s parlance. Thus the idea of a jazz repertory is, in one sense, arbitrary, a matter of taste. As much as I love both Sonny Rollins’ and Jack Teagarden’s wildly dissimilar versions of “I’m an Old Cowhand,” there’s nothing in the song itself that makes me want to hear it “jazzed up,” even by, say, Paul Bley or Alexander von Schlippenbach, two of my favorite pianists (okay, Misha Mengelberg, maybe, for perversity’s sake). Much of what we’ve accepted as jazz repertory over the past eight decades has been forgettable popular songs and dull variations on popular songs, raised to the level of art by intensely creative performances which do not merely interpret but vastly improve upon the original material. And there are a lot of corny, boring, or banal songs and jazz originals out there which resist such treatment because they are simply too corny, boring, or banal.

The question of popular songs as jazz material is one consideration. Another is that of the so-called jazz composition—something possibly more complex, more stylized, more detailed, more instrumentally motivated, and/or more profound than most popular material. In this category are pieces from composers (the term implying a certain sense of formal and conceptual awareness) like Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, George Russell, Charles Mingus, Monk, and the rest of the generally-acknowledged pantheon, as well as many others who may not be identified with them, but who have created substantial and lasting works like (here’s a short list of personal favorites) Ralph Burns, Eddie Sauter, Mal Waldron, Herbie Nichols, and Henry Threadgill. One of my criteria for success as a jazz composer is that their material must force the interpreter to question and possibly alter his/her typical performance practices in keeping with the nature of the composition. And there’s the rub. Let’s go back to Monk’s music again. While it would seem to be incompatible with the jazz ethos to mimic Monk, how far can an interpreter go before the piece is distorted or loses its character? I’ve heard lots of pianists confront Monk’s tunes by playing the theme, then blithely wandering off into a fulsomely ornamented solo that completely obliterates the compositional integrity and mood of the piece. They’re not interpreting Monk, they are playing themselves. Which, of course, is legitimate—but if they are going to be so oblivious to the nature of their material, why don’t they play “I’m an Old Cowhand” instead?

There’s no easy answer—especially as performance practices, repertory, and even individual and mass taste change continuously. Not many jazz players today, outside of the trad scene, include a Jelly Roll or Clarence Williams tune in their set list, and even Ellington or Strayhorn selections are inevitably limited to a handful of hits. Apart from the inevitable onslaught of lackluster originals, there’s lots of Wayne Shorter, Benny Golson, and Horace Silver being played, still plenty of Tin Pan Alley tunes, and more of Lennie Tristano’s abstractions on those tunes than ever before. Carla Bley’s earlier, small group pieces pop up occasionally among the more adventurous bands. One fortunate, if occasionally wayward, trend of the past two decades has been the resurrection of all-but-forgotten, frequently-deserving post-bop tunes by hands-on practitioners like Hank Mobley, Freddie Redd, Kenny Dorham, Elmo Hope…I guess we have the Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet to thank for that. Then there’s the perennial push to make contemporary pop relevant as jazz repertory—once upon a time it was the Beatles, now it’s Radiohead and Björk. But I wonder, is Andrew Hill’s music today in the position Monk’s was in the ‘60s? And what about Ornette?

What about Ornette? Who covers Ornette Coleman tunes today? His position as a brilliant improviser and conceptual iconoclast is unchallenged, but do we really think of Ornette as a composer? Yes, there’s “Skies of America,” and his string quartet pieces, and the “classical” works that were issued on an RCA album back in the ‘60s. But except for “Lonely Woman”—apparently the Ornette tune to play when you’re playing only one—when was the last time you heard a band cover a Coleman tune, or two? How many can you hum? (This is not a comment on their tunefulness, but on their familiarity.) The truth is, Ornette’s tunes are identified with his own performances. Like the music of Anthony Braxton, which has not achieved jazz repertory status either, alas, I can count the number of great Ornette covers pretty much on one hand. Which brings me to the real focus of this screed. There’s a new release on the Intakt label from pianist Aki Takase and saxophonist/clarinetist Silke Eberhard, entitled Ornette Coleman Anthology. Two CDs, 33 tunes, which they present not as an opportunity to show off their free jazz chops, but as a serious investigation of Ornette as a repertory composer.

The way they do this is to shrewdly recast his themes in a wide variety of contexts. Although many of Coleman’s early pieces retain a dashing bebop linearity, by slowing them down dramatically and realigning their phrasing, the duo highlights their lyrical symmetry and Monkish wit. These early pieces, too, are either based on chordal structures or strongly imply conventional harmonies, so Takase’s piano finds comfortable positions to support Eberhard’s melodic paraphrases. At other times, the piano injects clusters to suggest an ambiguous tonality, or devises pointillist deconstructions that allow freedom of tonal movement without losing formal cohesion. When she stretches out, Eberhard reminds us of the implicit improvisational connection between Coleman and Lee Konitz, with circuitous lines that don’t drift far from the melodies, separating her voice from theirs by utilizing a wider range of expressive gestures than either.

But more than anything else, Takase and Eberhard project imaginative styles onto the themes, to propose previously unsuspected character and atmosphere. A few examples will have to suffice. “Angel Voice” is set as a tango, complete with Piazzolla-like collapse and reconstruction. “Face of the Bass” obtains a stride feel, and “I Heard It Over the Radio” becomes a hymn. “Airborne” is abstractly slivered into its constituent parts, while “Eos” is actually transformed into Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning,” to emphasize an ironic link between the two composers. In a nutshell, “Congeniality” best symbolizes their uninhibited, contrary response to Ornette’s explicit formal freedoms, jumping back and forth between the joyful melody and seemingly unrelated atonal, arhythmic interludes. Here, and throughout, each of Takase and Eberhard’s decisions derives from a compositional attitude, to work with the material at hand and illuminate it from a fresh perspective. In this way, I’m reminded of Giorgio Gaslini’s radical view of Albert Ayler songs, Ayler’s Wings (Soul Note), and Ran Blake’s unique and personal approach to Monk, and precious few others. The Art of the Improviser notwithstanding, they make us reflect upon the art of the composer—and that’s what repertory should do.

Art Lange©2007

Guelph Jazz Festival

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