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Fifty Year Friday: Thelonious Monk “Straight, No Chaser”; McCoy Tyner “The Real McCoy”

 

2evhqIn launching a Google search for lists of Jazz albums of 1967, one finds lists like this that include many fine albums:

1967

  1. Sun Ra: Atlantis (1967)
  2. Gary Burton: A Genuine Tong Funeral (1967)
  3. Sam Rivers: Dimensions And Extensions (1967)
  4. Roscoe Mitchell: Old Quartet (1967)
  5. Bill Dixon: Intents And Purposes (1967)
  6. George Russell: Othello Ballet Suite (1967)
  7. Muhal Richard Abrams: Levels and Degrees of Light (1967)
  8. Archie Shepp: The Magic of Ju-Ju (1967)
  9. Jackie McLean: New and Old Gospel (1967)
  10. Roland Kirk: The Inflated Tear (1967)
  11. Don Ellis: Electric Bath (1967)
  12. John Coltrane: Interstellar Space (1967)
  13. Frank Wright: Your Prayer (1967)
  14. Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Withdrawal (1967)
  15. Peter Broetzmann: For Adolph Sax (1967)
  16. Chick Corea: Now He Sings Now He Sobs (1967)
  17. Miles Davis: Nefertiti (1967)
  18. Don Ellis: Live in 3 2/3/4 Time (1967)
  19. Jackie McLean: Demon’s Dance (1967)
  20. Miles Davis: Sorcerer (1967)
  21. Gary Burton: Duster (1967)
  22. John Coltrane: Expression (1967)
  23. McCoyTyner: The Real McCoy (1967)
  24. Wayne Shorter: Schizophrenia (1967)
  25. Lee Konitz: Duets (1967)
  26. Paul Bley: Virtuosi (1967)
  27. Lester Bowie: Numbers 1 & 2 (1967)
  28. Paul Bley: Ballads (1967)

(from http://www.scaruffi.com/jazz/60.html#1967)

However, notably missing from all such lists (I have seen) is one of the best jazz albums of 1967, Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser.”

Why is this? Why do fairly knowledgeable jazz listeners fail to include an album of such exceptional music?

The clear-cut answer is that Monk is competing against himself.

By 1947, when Monk first started recording for Blue Note, five days after his thirtieth birthday, his style, approach and individual voice were already established, making those Blue Note recordings exceptional statements by a fully mature artist. From 1947 to 1951, many of the most celebrated Monk compositions were captured forever for all of us: “Ruby, My Dear”,  “Well, You Needn’t”, “Round Midnight”, “Evidence”, “Misterioso”, “Epistrophy”, “Criss Cross” and “Straight, No Chaser.”

Over the next two and half decades, as jazz in general continued to expand beyond Bebop with Hard Bop, Cool, West Coast Jazz, Third Stream, Post Bop, Soul Jazz and Fusion, Monk’s approach and stylistic traits remained relatively stable.  In the sixties, Monk was no longer viewed by some as a unique innovator, but rather, just simply unique. The innovation was there — not stylistic, but in playing freshly, honestly, and incisively, continuing to balance silence against sound and expressing himself naturally, logically and directly.  His music still evolved, but slowly. and more in terms of refinement than in alignment with the other changes happening in jazz.

By this album, “Straight, No Chaser”, Monk has established a continued level of excellence — connecting directly and succinctly. That this was one of the best albums of the year could only be overlooked by those comparing this music to Monk’s work from the late 1940’s on the Blue Note label, recognizing the historical influence of that music and finding no such historical significance in this 1967 Columbia album.

The personnel for this album:

Clearly, the quality of the only non-rhythm section soloist (Monk goes way beyond being part of a rhythm section, of course) is going to have a considerable impact on the overall merit and quality of this recording, and Charlie Rouse, at this point, after working with Monk since 1959, has become the ideal tenor sax partner.  In one sense, he is an extension of Monk’s brilliance, and yet he still has his own voice and ideas.

The album I am using for this trek back through time is the LP version without the bonus tracks available on the CD version.

  1. “Locomotive” (Thelonious Monk)
  2. “I Didn’t Know About You” (Duke Ellington)
  3. “Straight, No Chaser” (Thelonious Monk)
  4. “Japanese Folk Song (Kōjō no Tsuki)” (Rentarō Taki)
  5. “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” (Harold Arlen)
  6. “We See” (Thelonious Monk)

“Locomotive”, opens the album, slow and steady, initially creating a sound picture of a locomotive chugging out of the station and then giving way to one of those “every note counts” Monk solos, a solo that is cognizant of, and at points includes fragments of, the original melody.  Rouse solos follows with Monk accompanying and the piece ends in typical bebop fashion, repeating the opening section.

The fourth track, “Japanese Folk Song” is particularly of note. On the LP the length is around 11 minutes.  On the CD reissue, the length is listed at 16:42, indicating that the LP version has been edited.  The folk song melody that opens the piece is Rentarō Taki’s “Kojo No Tsuki” (The Moon Over the Desolate Castle), originally written in 1901 as a school-book lesson in “Songs for High School Students”, and later recorded in the 1920’s becoming a well-known tune throughout Japan that was so associated with Japanese nationalism that the tune was banned by the Allies during their post WWII occupation of Japan.

Monk takes the original tune and twists it with syncopation, runs and Monk’s own distinct dynamic approach to striking the keys. Rouse comes in playing the melody eerily evenly on the beat before journeying more distantly away. At the 4 1/2 minute mark on the LP we have the start of an extended, mesmerizing solo by Monk.  (I am guessing this is where the edit is, dropping out a solo by Rouse to accommodate the time limitations of the LP.)  The last 3 minutes Rouse and Monk wind their way to the finish with interwoven, intertwined, Monk-trademark counterpoint before a brief and satisfying coda.

“The Real McCoy” is McCoy Tyner’s seventh album, but please notice that the label is no longer Impulse but Blue Note.  Blue Note Records, founded in 1939, historically seems to be the label that takes artists to their next level and so it is here with Tyner, who had recorded his last album with John Coltrane in 1965 and was not aligned with the direction Coltrane was pursuing.  Tyner: ” All I could hear was a lot of noise. I didn’t have any feeling for the music, and when I don’t have feelings, I don’t play.”

Well, there’s not any dispute about Tyner playing on this album. From the opening upbeat, contemporary “Passion Dance” to the more traditional “Blues on the Corner” spiced with Tyner’s harmonics and his energetic, almost frenetic solo, this is an excellent album.

With Tyner are three world-class jazz artists:

I am often disinterested in the obligatory bass solo (whether that is once each track or even, as in this case, once on an album), but Ron Carter, is always exceptional as he shows here on his solo, in the introspective second track, “Contemplation.”

Elvin Jones was the ideal drummer for the many Coltane albums he is on, and an excellent fit for Tyner’s compositions and Tyner’s playing.

Joe Henderson made important contributions on Blue Note albums starting in 1963, appearing on important albums for Grant Green, Andrew Hill, Horace Silver and Lee Morgan as well as Larry Young’s incomparable “Unity” album. He shimmers and sparkles on this album with inventive, engaging and compelling soloing and ensemble work.

If one compares the quality of Tyner’s piano work to Monk’s, which, of course, really isn’t fair to either artist, Tyner does come in second place in terms of overall musical intensity and economy of expression. This is evident in the exceptional track “Contemplation.” From almost the beginning Tyner includes these short repeated scalar phrases (some would call this “noodling”) which, unfortunately, remind me a little too much of some of the soloing filler of the guitarists in the 1980’s hair bands, and is not so distant to some of the unnecessary busy-ness that one can even find in earlier pianists like Art Tatum.  This is only a slight distraction, and less annoying on repeated listenings of this track; particularly as Tyner treats this as an integral part of the composition and so once one has heard the composition, these quick spurts of adjacent notes become part of the performance’s fabric.

Putting such a minor quibble aside, Tyner has put together a diverse set of compositions. The modal “Passion Dance” is exceptionally vibrant and vital. “Contemplation” is an introspective ballad.  “Four by Five” is an aggressive, wild work starting with a 4 against 5 theme and highlighted by amazing soloing by Joe Henderson. From the Blue Note Liner Notes: “McCoy explains … ‘Four By Five receives its title because the melody is constructed as if there’s a middle -it’s in 4/4 on the outside and 5/4 on the inside. But we improvise as if there weren’t a middle; we improvise only in 4/4’.”

“Search for Peace” is a soothing statement about the value of peacefulness and tranquility.  The album ends with a casual, relaxed blues-based tune, “Blues on the Corner”, nicely wrapping up an album that covers a range of emotions and attitudes, accessible and yet solidly fresh, modern music for 1967 that is as engaging today as ever.

Track listing 

All compositions by McCoy Tyner

  1. “Passion Dance” – 8:45
  2. “Contemplation” – 9:10
  3. “Four by Five” – 6:35
  4. “Search for Peace” – 6:25
  5. “Blues on the Corner” – 6:05

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