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Nashville Scene Luminaries

Jazz greats release new collections

By Ron Wynn

AUGUST 24, 1998:  Jazz fans consider themselves more musically sophisticated than other audiences, yet many were unable to appreciate the compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk and Sun Ra while the two musicians were alive. As is too often the case, now that both these remarkable composers, performers, and bandleaders are deceased, the testimonials and accolades keep coming. But while they were alive, Monk labored away during lengthy periods of obscurity, and Sun Ra endured considerable disdain from his colleagues.

Thanks to the perspective gained by hindsight, both Monk and Ra are now touted as musical innovators, men who ignored convention and flaunted tradition in favor of emphasizing their own distinctive voices. Still, as some compelling new reissues demonstrate, it's inaccurate to suggest that Monk and Ra had little use for current musical styles; rather, each man integrated modern sounds into his work while staying devoted to his own unique, forward-looking vision.

Monk was among a handful of musicians whose experiments with harmony and rhythm triggered the bop revolution, yet throughout his career he refused to consider himself a bopper. He'd often tell musicians on the bandstand that he didn't want to hear "any of that bebopping stuff," and his greatest compositions were neither 12-bar blues nor standard 32-bar AABA-format pieces. He was first and foremost a lover of melody, and among the most percussive pianists of all time. Monk preferred ballads or mid-tempo pieces, best represented by his classic compositions "Round Midnight," "Pannonica," and "Criss-Cross." His solos were unpredictable and completely amazing: He'd sometimes hit notes that were technically incorrect but conveyed perfectly the mood he wanted.

For much of his career, Sun Ra, born Herman "Sonny" Blount, was widely considered an eccentric, more a con man than a capable composer and musician. But the truth is, he was thoroughly well-versed in African American and American music, not to mention history, culture, astrology, and philosophy. Long before the advent of rock theatrics, his performances were multimedia concerts, with outlandish stage garb, vivid light shows, dancers, and filmed segments. His albums were far-ranging affairs, blending vintage swing-era arrangements with freely improvised pieces, moments of serene beauty, and passages marked by raging saxes, clashing drums, and his own whirling electronic keyboards.

Throughout his career, Sun Ra controlled his own recording and publishing enterprises--and he did it in an era when such a notion was considered fairly radical. He entered into agreements with other companies only infrequently. At Sun Ra concerts, his records were always sold in the lobby during intermission, and he cut most of his sessions in whatever studios or rehearsal spaces were available.

By now, it's certainly true that both Monk and Sun Ra have been fully accepted into the jazz pantheon. But of late, there seems to have been yet another resurgence of interest in these two musicians. In the past year-and-a half, three different biographies of Monk have been published, and Sun Ra is the subject of a recent bio as well. Even more recently, two new Monk twin-CD reissues and one three-disc Sun Ra set have come out.

Of the Monk bios, only music historian and scholar Thomas Fittering's Thelonious Monk: His Life and Music actually explains in literate fashion Monk's musical style. Even more commendable is the fact that the author has taken a warts-and-all approach: By refusing to portray his subject as either a victim or an oppressed martyr, Fittering allows the reader to understand Monk in all his complexity. The author explains why the artist felt misunderstood for much of his career--and why his uncompromising attitudes prevented him from being appreciated more during his lifetime.

The two double-CD sets, both on Columbia/Legacy, are magnificent. Monk Alone: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings of Thelonious Monk (1962-1968) contains virtually every solo track he cut during the six-year period he was with the label. While the multiple takes can sometimes be jarring, it's instructive to hear Monk deconstruct melodies, adjust harmonies, and vary rhythms on such songs as "Body and Soul," "Darn That Dream," and "Dinah." He never played a song the same way twice, especially during recording sessions, and each version offers subtle, delightful differences. On one take, for instance, he might hit the notes in a chorus harder the second time around, while on another he might increase the pedal pressure just enough to change a note's tone.

Monk's playing on Live at the It Club--Complete, is more erratic, mainly because he was still adjusting to his new band. While the core group of tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales, and drummer Ben Riley ultimately numbered among Monk's best and favorite bands, they'd only been working with him a few months when this date was originally cut in 1964. Rouse, though hardly as dynamic a soloist as past band members Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, actually proved a better collaborator, since he customarily played Monk's compositions exactly as written. His solos on "Blue Monk," "Bemsha Swing," "Straight No Chaser," and "Rhythm-A-Ning" are exuberant and polished, if not particularly exciting.

Likewise, Gales and Riley developed an instinctive ability to react to Monk's sometimes ungainly accompaniment and solos. The pianist's playing on "Evidence" and "Blues Five Spot" offers some moments of glory, and other moments when he veers so far from the theme that he's nearly playing another song. Both sets are remastered in 24-bit sonic glory, allowing the listener to hear everything from Monk singing underneath his playing to club patrons rattling glasses.

Like Monk, Sun Ra was a jazz pianist and an iconoclast, but there the similarities largely end. John F. Szwed's Space Is the Place (Pantheon) is a well-researched look at the life and work of this most unusual musician. Commendably, the author demolishes the myth that Sun Ra was a meandering oddball who cloaked himself in outer-space mysticism to disguise musical incompetence. Not only does he suggest that Sun Ra's space cosmology was far more progressive than people realized, he traces the development of Ra's band, the Arkestra, showing how the bandleader was involved in everything from song selection and composition to recruiting musicians. The book also includes lengthy discussions about the extensive Ra discography, touting such undervalued musicians as saxophonists John Gilmore, Marshall Allen and Pat Patrick, trombonist Julian Priester, bassist Ronnie Boykins, and drummer Clifford Jarvis.

The new three-disc set Calling Planet Earth (DA Music) includes two discs of previously unissued Ra material dating from the early '60s and the '70s. It's the second collection of fascinating Sun Ra material to come out in the last year or so: 1996's Sun Ra--The Singles, a two-disc set on Evidence, continues to captivate fans with its wide-ranging selections, which feature the Arkestra playing everything from outer-space jazz to doo wop and jump blues.

Calling Planet Earth's best numbers, among them the fiery "Outer Space Incorporated," "The Wind Speaks," and "Spaceways," are distinguished by Sun Ra's prickly synthesizer riffs, along with hard-edged blowing from Gilmore, Patrick, and Allen on tenor, soprano, alto, and baritone saxophones. Rounding out the wide-ranging musical textures are gospel-tinged vocals from a singing corps that included June Tyson, the Arkestra's finest songstress and dancer. The pace and mood constantly shift, from somber to joyful, from blaring exchanges to soothing solos; throughout, Sun Ra rules over the proceedings with a benevolent command.

By now, the music of Thelonious Monk and Sun Ra has earned widespread acceptance and recognition, but we can still learn much from their careers. At a time when music as a whole seems to have lost some of its flair and vitality, the legacy of these two incomparable performers offers a stunning example of creative inspiration at its peak. And if Monk and Ra have no equals in contemporary music, at least we can hope that jazz fans and critics will better recognize this sort of genius when it crops up again.

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