Doc Wendell’s Prescription For Monk: “Thelonious Monk – Thelonious Himself” (Riverside)

August 26, 2015

Devon “Doc” Wendell

By Devon Wendell

Thelonious Monk has been labeled “The High Priest of Bebop.” Yes, Monk’s contributions to the bebop era were essential in the development of the music. But Monk was so much more than that. No one played piano like him or thought the way he did when composing or covering even the most popular standards from the American songbook. I don’t like to categorize Monk’s music other than it being Monk’s music; a genre unto itself.

More people play Monk’s compositions today that any other composer in the history of jazz. He’s still my favorite musician and composer in the history of American music. Monk never adhered to the ever changing trends in jazz that took place during his lifetime. He always remained true to his own vision. There are no Monk “fusion” albums or Monk playing “free-form” or trying to please a rock n’ roll audience. Monk’s music was and still is modern and he never had to try too hard to sound that way.

One of the most chillingly intimate recordings Monk ever made was Thelonious Monk-Thelonious Himself on the Riverside label, recorded on April 12th and 16th of 1957. This is a solo piano album, with the exception of “Monk’s Mood,” which features John Coltrane and bassist Wilbur Ware from Monk’s infamous Five Spot Band of that same year.

On “April In Paris,” “(I Don’t Stand) A Ghost Of A Chance,” “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and “I Should Care,” you get the impression that you’re witnessing a man whose sole purpose in life was to play music and to do so his own way and that everything else in his life were mere distractions. The voicings on these standards are so special and brilliant. Monk’s harmonies were and still are unique to this day. His use of pedal tones and dissonant chords altered the way jazz musicians heard and played their instruments.

Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk

No one else dared to play these compositions this way. At the time of this recording, it was considered sacrileges to alter these harmonies so drastically. Up until 1956, Monk was often dismissed as an eccentric and nothing more by some critics and jazz aficionados. His relationship with Riverside Records (and later with Columbia Records) helped to change that forever. Musicians like Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, Max Roach, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins (who was the first to put Monk on record) Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Art Blakey all knew he was a genius; the rest of the world took a little longer to discover this for themselves.

“Functional” is a stride blues. Monk’s sense of dynamics and spacing makes this piece like no other stride blues you’ve ever heard. Monk was inspired by such stride piano greats as James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith, and you can hear tiny traces of those players here, but Monk’s own personality shines through the brightest.

The highlight of the album is Monk doing take after take of his classic “’Round Midnight,” with false starts, breakdowns, studio banter between Monk and Orrin Keepnews, and incomplete takes, lasting over 20 minutes. Each attempt is harmonically different than the last. What you get to hear is a genius and perfectionist pushing and searching within himself for something magical, and often sounding frustrated. All of the takes are magical but Monk’s standards were as high as his level of creativity. It also had to be right for his fans. As complex as Monk’s compositions are from a technical standpoint, his melodies are extremely accessible. You can whistle or hum his melodies very easily in the shower. That dichotomy is what made Monk so amazing. There finally is a complete take of “’Round Midnight” that is breathtaking.

Thelonious Monk

Monk’s take on Irving Berlin’s “All Alone” is so mournful and sincere. When Monk would cover a song, he would understand it completely, the lyrics, the meaning, everything. Monk never made an insincere move during his career. This is harrowing music. Every note and chord has purpose. Monk was never one to thoughtlessly toss his chops around. Duke Ellington’s influence can be heard in Monk’s more delicate nuances.

The album ends with “Monk’s Mood” with John Coltrane on tenor sax and Wilbur Ware on bass. This is the darkest, most beautiful rendition of “Monk’s Mood” ever recorded. Coltrane plays much more thematically than usual, not straying too far from the melody line as he solos briefly. Ware’s bass lines are thoughtful and precise. Monk’s attack on the piano is delicate and less percussive than on the previous selections. With just a piano, tenor sax, and bass, the effect is far more dramatic than if a drummer had been added. Monk knew this would result in something special and timeless.

Thelonious Monk-Thelonious Himself is a clear glimpse into a very intimate session by one of the greatest artists in the history of the American music. Music doesn’t get any better than this.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.

Doc Wendell’s Prescription For Fat Girl: Fats Navarro Memorial No. 2: Nostalgia (Savoy)

August 4, 2015

Devon “Doc” Wendell

By Devon Wendell

For many occasional jazz listeners there are only 3 great trumpeters that come across their minds and lips, and they are of course Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and occasionally Louis Armstrong. For those of us obsessed with the music’s many genres and glorious history (like myself) the list is much longer and consists of dozens of the instrument’s greatest innovators, ranging in a large spectrum of styles.

The player who made me want to quit the guitar and trade it in for a trumpet in college was the great Fats Navarro. I don’t believe one could or should compare the style of “Fat Girl” (as he was nick-named) to that Dizzy or Miles, although he played with both men and was a big influence on Miles. But Navarro’s influence didn’t stop there. Clifford Brown, Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, and Freddie Hubbard (to name just a few) were all students of Navarro’s fluid style. Navarro could be a fast virtuosic player, but it was his lyricism, sweet tone, sense of rhythm, and his confidence that made him so unique and swing as hard as he did. Navarro was one of the key contributors to the bebop era of the 1940s and one of the most important musicians in the entire history of jazz.

Just about every Fats Navarro record you can find is going to be excellent but I thought I’d select the very first one that I ever owned, suggested to me by the great jazz trumpeter and educator Dan Miller many moons ago.

Fats Navarro Memorial No.2: Nostalgia consists of 3 separate recording sessions of the late 1940s for the Savoy label, not only under his own name but also under the names of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Dexter Gordon, and Tadd Dameron.

The first four tracks are from The Fats Navarro Quintet recorded on December 5, 1947, featuring Charlie Rouse, tenor saxophone, Tadd Dameron, piano, Nelson Boyd, bass, and Art Blakey on drums.

“Nostalgia” is a Navarro classic. The harmonic brilliance between Rouse and Navarro on the song’s head is fantastic. Navarro and the band swing oh so sweetly. Navarro plays a muted trumpet and produces the warmest tone you’ve ever heard in your life. I could always envision Sarah Vaughan singing Navarro’s solo note for note in my head. It would have been completely logical.

“Barry’s Bop” “Be Bop Romp” and “Fats Blows” are some of the greatest bebop recordings ever made. Rouse (who would play in Thelonious Monk’s band of the ‘60s) was already a unique tenor saxophonist with a fat, round tone and an astute knowledge of the bebop language.

Navarro’s high notes hit you like a left hook from Joe Louis. He then sings melodically through his trumpet with the most amazing rhythm. Navarro’s rhythmic sensibility allowed him to swing beautifully across some the most complex and frenetic chord changes. Dameron’s piano comping is delicately tasteful and the perfect accompaniment for Navarro. Art Blakey’s drumming is much more subdued on these sessions than usual but you can’t imagine him playing any other way on this date.

The next few tracks culminate from the Dexter Gordon And His Boys session on December 22, 1947. Here we have Navarro with Dexter Gordon, tenor saxophone, Tadd Dameron, piano, Nelson Boyd, bass, and Art Mardigan on drums.

“Dextivity,” “Dextrose” and “Index” are burning. Dexter Gordon and Navarro had a brief but very special chemistry. Gordon’s tenor lines unravel slowly, telling a story. Navarro’s solos are shorter but like Bird (with whom Navarro had performed and recorded with several times during his career) Navarro could say it all within four bars. And everything he would play in that short space would be impossible to forget. The sound of Gordon and Navarro together is bright and joyful. The love of this music is felt throughout every gorgeous nuance.

The next session on this compilation was called Eddie Davis And His Beboppers, recorded on December 18, 1946 with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, tenor saxophone, Huey Long, guitar, Al Haig, piano, Gene Ramey, bass, and Denzil Best on drums.
These three sides (“Stealin’ Trash,” “Hollerin’ & Screamin,” and “Calling Dr. Jazz”) have a harder edge to them than the material from the other two sessions. Davis’ tenor sax lines honk and shout like an R&B player, Long’s guitar harmonizes wonderfully with Davis and Navarro. Navarro again plays shorter, more concise solos that are more potent and memorable than Davis’s or Long’s. Fats could take you there as quickly as possible with what sounds like an unmatched level of confidence. He was obviously very aware of his immense talents.

Fats Navarro Memorial No. 2: Nostalgia features some of Fats Navarro’s most brilliant playing from several essential sessions recorded for the Savoy label. Once you hear Fats blow, you’ll never forget it and this is an excellent addition to anyone’s collection.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.

Doc Wendell’s Prescription For Bass BeBop: Paul Chambers: “1st Bassman” (Vee Jay Records)

August 3, 2015

Devon “Doc” Wendell

By Devon Wendell

Paul Chambers or “Mr. P.C.” was one of the most prolific and inventive bassists to emerge from the hard-bop era. His presence was so strong on classic albums by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, J.J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Art Pepper, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk, (to name only a few) that his aggressive playing often rivaled the many jazz icons he “backed up.” He never overstepped his boundaries and he could be a very subtle player. But like bassists before him such as Oscar Pettiford, Milt Hinton, Ray Brown, and Percy Heath , he helped to bring the bass to the forefront of jazz. Chambers was young and hip. He took chances which gave him an edge that was relentlessly burning.

Paul Chambers

On May 12, 1960, Chambers lead an all-star band (Wynton Kelly, piano, Lex Humphries, drums, Curtis Fuller, trombone, Yusef Lateef, tenor saxophone and flute, and Tommy Turrentine on trumpet) for what turned out to be his last studio session as a band leader. The results were fantastic.

Lateef wrote all of the material for the album – 1st Bassman – (with the exception of Cannonball Adderley’s “Who’s Blues.”) Chambers creates some of the hardest swinging, funkiest grooves imaginable. On “Melody” and the modal “Bass Region,” Lateef’s tenor lines are tasteful and wonderfully original. Lateef had already established a style that was unique and that could fit in both hard-bop and more avant-garde settings. Humphries’ drumming is subtle and in the pocket, in the vein of Art Taylor or Kenny Clarke.

Fuller and Turrentine play melodically, dancing around the beat. Wynton Kelly always finds a way to explore new harmonic possibilities that fit perfectly within a given arrangement and composition. And Chambers’ solos are adventurous without losing sight of the grooves.

Paul Chambers

Paul Chambers

“Retrogress” and “Mopp Shoe Blues” feature Kelly, Lateef, Fuller, and Turrentine all soloing around Chambers’ bass lines. Lateef’s horn arrangements have a big band feel to them. Chambers is the man in front and on top and everyone present knows how to swing elegantly in orbit around him.

“Blessed” is a gorgeous ballad featuring some of Chambers’ most inventive and soulful bass bowing. The delicate horn arrangements glide softly below, punctuating some of Chambers’ masterful phrasing. Lateef’s flute solo is gracefully melodic and perfect. Turrentine’s muted trumpet solo and Fuller’s trombone lines are brief and poignant. Wynton Kelly’s piano solo is thematic and wonderfully complex.

The album finishes with “Who’s Blues,” a pure, slow blues that opens up even more room for everyone to solo. Cannonball Adderley makes a special guest appearance here (not credited because he was under contract with Riverside Records at the time) and plays one of his trademark hard swinging blues-bop solos on alto sax. Chambers’ leaps from the lower register of the bass to the upper with ease as Kelly’s rollicking solo takes you right to the heart of the blues. Everyone is cooking here and they know it.

1st Bassman is a unique album on all levels. Chambers reprograms the listener into not only accepting the bass as a lead instrument of a jazz sextet, but also makes it feel as though this is how it should be and that nothing else could be as hip. This album is an underrated gem that should heard by all music lovers.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.

Doc Wendell’s Prescription For Saxophone Bop: “The Johnny Griffin Sextet” (Riverside)

July 28, 2015

Devon “Doc” Wendell

By Devon Wendell

By 1958, Johnny Griffin was known as the fastest tenor saxophonist to emerge from the hard-bop era. Griffin’s dexterity combined with his ability to make you feel every soulful note that he played made him one of the most spectacularly brilliant and original musicians in the world.

Griffin had replaced John Coltrane in Thelonious Monk’s band in 1958. Griffin proved to not only understand the harmonic complexities of Monk’s music, but he also “got” that playing with Monk meant having to be able to improvise thematically instead of just blowing over some chord changes.

Johnny Griffin

Johnny Griffin

Griffin applied those same thematic sensibilities to his own playing and writing as a fearless bandleader. Griffin was a unique arranger whose love of both bebop and big band jazz were prevalent throughout his illustrious yet unpredictable recording career.

The Johnny Griffin Sextet was recorded for the Riverside label on February 25th, 1958. It features Griffin paired with some of the all-time greatest musicians in jazz: Kenny Drew, piano, Donald Byrd, trumpet, Pepper Adams, baritone sax, Wilbur Ware, bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.

The Album opens with “Stix Trix” which is a loving tribute to drummer Philly Joe Jones. The song’s arrangement brings to mind Dizzy Gillespie’s big band bop sound of the mid- to late 1940s. Drew’s masterful piano solo is percussive yet elegant. Pepper Adams delivers one of the hardest swinging solos of his career. Donald Byrd’s solo soars. Griffin comes in playing more economically than usual, singing confidently through his horn in perfect time. He then swings in a more syncopated fashion, gleefully playing with the song’s tempo.

Griffin and the sextet’s version of “What’s New?” is a definite highlight of his entire career and my favorite rendition of this Johnny Burke and Bob Haggart ballad. Griffin plays soft and sweetly. Lester Young’s influence can be heard in each note that rings out with a rich, slow vibrato and long, soulful bends in the horn’s upper register. Byrd’s amazingly cocky and frenetic solo is the perfect counterpoint to Griffin’s. Adams almost steals the show with his mournful and harmonically stellar baritone lines.

Philly Joe Jones’ rhythmically complex drumming on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody N’ You” makes this one of the most original arrangements of this daddy of all bebop songs. Griffin and Ware “stroll” alone as the rest of the band lays out, a style first made popular by Sonny Rollins when Rollins recorded with Miles Davis in 1954 on the Prestige label.

Jones eventually comes back in and trades eights with Griffin, Ware, and Drew. Ware’s bass is the perfect anchor for Jones’ rhythmic explorations. The entire band is burning.

“Johnny G.G.” and “Catharsis” also have big band style arrangements to them. Everyone is grooving in time here, and there isn’t much fast pyrotechnics or over blowing which makes these number swing even harder. The rhythm section of Ware and Jones are the driving force and the rest of the band not only knows it, but relishes in this fact. These are two of the hippest sextet recordings made during this time. Byrd and Adams play a little double time but quickly fall back into the groove. Wilbur Ware (who also played in Monk’s band shortly before this recording) lets it be known that he was one of the most original and tasteful bass players to emerge from the 1950s.
The Johnny Griffin Sextet showcases Griffin’s complex yet soulful approach to soloing as well as his uniquely distinct abilities as a master arranger and composer. This album is a perfect example of how Johnny Griffin could transform his love and mastery of both bebop and big band jazz into something fresh and timeless.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.


CD Review- Miles Davis At Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 (Columbia/Legacy)

July 16, 2015

Devon “Doc” Wendell

By Devon Wendell

Many jazz aficionados like myself have been waiting for a live box set like this one for most of our lives and it’s finally here. Miles Davis At Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 consists of 4 CDs featuring 20 years of Miles Davis performances (8 shows in total) showcasing Miles at different stages of his prolific career. The official release date is Friday, July 17th.


The first CD kicks off with a stellar set by Miles at Newport on July 17, 1955. Joining Miles is a “Who’s Who” of the bebop era: Thelonious Monk on piano, Zoot Sims on tenor sax, Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax, Percy Heath on bass, and Connie Kay on drums. After a delightful introduction by Duke Ellington and Gerry Mulligan, Miles and the band perform three pieces: “Hackensack” and “’Round Midnight,” both by Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time.” There’s a laid back yet stark beauty to this short set. Miles and Monk compliment each other perfectly. Miles proves that he understood Monk’s music better than most. The melodic beauty of Sims on tenor and Mulligan on baritone sax is a perfect joyful juxtaposition to the haunting beauty of Monk and Miles.

The Newport show from July 3, 1958 has been available on CD for many years, but it just sounds even more inspirational on this box set and the sound is vastly improved. This is the same band as on Kind Of Blue ( except for Wynton Kelly), released a year later: John Coltrane, tenor sax, Cannonball Adderley, alto sax, Bill Evans, piano, Paul Chambers, bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. Miles’ lyricism on trumpet is breathtaking. That elegant swing that Miles created at that time really shines through this performance. Coltrane on the other hand plays like a mad man, ripping through “Ah Leu Cha,” Fran Dance” and “Bye Bye Blackbird” like a man on fire. You just cannot believe what you’re hearing. Coltrane was that incredible by 1958. Cannonball Adderley swings hard with his distinct blues- bop driven alto sax style and the rhythm section cooks. Evans takes a more subordinate role on piano but what he plays is perfect.

Hearing Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet (Wayne Shorter, tenor sax, Herbie Hancock, piano, Ron Carter, bass, and Tony Williams on drums) at Newport on July 4, 1966 is a true highlight of this box set. The energy of these brilliant players feels unearthly. Miles’ chops are in top form. Tony Williams’ drumming is hip, imaginative, and adventurous. On “Gingerbread Boy” and “All Blues,” Williams often changes the tempo and the rest of the band is right there with him without missing a breath. Shorter, Hancock, and Carter swing beyond belief. “All Blues,” “Stella By Starlight” and “R.J.” are some of the most spectacular live jazz recordings I’ve heard in my entire life. The band takes the material to new places and the vitality of the players is jaw-dropping. The sound is so clear that it feels as if Miles and the band are performing right in front of you. This set alone makes this box set an essential purchase.

That same infectious energy is felt on Miles’ Second Great Quintet performance on July 2, 1967. The band stretches out on Shorter’s masterpiece, “Footprints” and on “’Round Midnight.” Miles and the band even keep the older compositions sounding fresh with new ideas and boundless energy.

On July 5, 1969, Miles played The Newport Festival with his new electric sound. Maybe the audience didn’t “get it” yet but who cares? This music demonstrates that Miles was still moving, growing, and leading the way in the jazz/fusion movement. Joined by Chick Corea on electric piano, Dave Holland, bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums, Miles’ reinvents his sound once more. Listening to the band perform “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” and “Sanctuary” from Bitches Brew is both loud and wonderfully funky. Corea’s distorted psychedelic electric keyboard work is nasty in all the best ways. Holland and DeJohnette’s chemistry was already very strong by this point.

As great as the ’69 set is, the show from November 1, 1973 at The Newport Jazz Festival in Europe in Berlin, Germany is even hotter. Here we have Miles with Dave Liebman on soprano, tenor sax, and flute, Pete Cosey, guitar and percussion, Reggie Lucas, guitar, Michael Henderson, electric bass, Al Foster, drums, and James Mtume Forman on percussion. “Turnaroundphrase” and “Tune In 5” are just preposterous. By this time, Miles had out psychedelicized the psychedelic rock bands of the day. This set is more of an exploration in sound and freedom than executing perfectly arranged compositions to fit a brief festival set.

The Avery Fischer Hall show on July 1, 1975 features Sam Morrison on tenor sax, Pete Cosey, guitar and percussion, Reggie Lucas, guitar, Michael Henderson, electric bass, Al Foster, drums, and James Mtume Forman on percussion performing Miles’ original “Mtume.” Like the Berlin set, this is electric Miles leaving the past behind as he and the band explore new sounds for a more youth-oriented audience. But the results are transcendent on another level than Miles’ more bop oriented performances from the first 2 CDs of this box set. Sam Morrison burns on tenor sax and Mtume’s thoughtful percussion is original and matches the funkiness of the great Al Foster’s drumming.

The box set finishes with an amazing performance in Dietikon, Switzerland on October 22, 1971. Here is one of Miles’ greatest bands from the ‘70s with Gary Bartz, soprano, and alto sax, Keith Jarrett, electric keyboards and organ, Michael Henderson, electric bass, Ndugu Leon Chancler, drums, Don Alias, percussion, and James Mtume Forman on percussion. This is without a doubt the tightest of Miles’ electric performances on this box set. Henderson’s bass locks in with Chancler’s drums, creating some truly innovative funk grooves. Gary Bartz’ soprano work on Joe Zawinul’s “Directions” cooks. The set consists of material mostly from Bitches Brew. “What I Say” sounds both beautiful and wicked at the same time. Henderson is one of the greatest bassists of all time and the proof is right here in this performance. The combination of the tight grooves and psychedelic rock sounds is further proof that Miles was not only in touch with the funk rock of the early ‘70s but was also an original, key contributor to that sound.

No music lover and especially no Miles Davis fan should go without this wonderfully historic box set. Miles Davis At Newport 1955-1975 The Bootleg Series Vol.4 is a further glimpse into the genius of Miles Davis as it went through constant changes. Each performance defines a specific genre in jazz as only Miles Davis could do.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.


Doc Wendell’s Prescription For Bop: Sonny Rollins’ “Worktime” (Prestige)

July 13, 2015

Devon “Doc” Wendell

By Devon Wendell

To many critics and part-time jazz enthusiasts; Saxophone Colossus is considered to be Sonny Rollins’ greatest studio recording. Yes, Colossus brought Rollins much worldwide acclaim, but it also overshadowed one of Rollins’ most masterful recordings: Worktime, recorded a year earlier on December 2, 1955. Saxophone Colossus was much more accessible. Even non-jazz lovers enjoy it to this day. But Worktime is considered to be the superior quartet album by Rollins of that period by jazz musicians and hardcore Rollins fans alike.

At the time, Rollins had just replaced Harold Land as the tenor player in The Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet. Both Roach and bassist George Morrow of the Brown/Roach band are the featured rhythm section on Worktime, along with Ray Bryant on piano. This album not only showcases Rollins at one of his many peaks; it also features some of the most inspired drumming of Max Roach’s entire career. This is essential listening.

The band starts things out with “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Rollins can take a banal show tune or pop hit and make it swing like no one else. Rollins’ angular lines, uniquely shaped phrasing, and sense of humor make me think of Thelonious Monk. If Monk played the tenor sax, he would play like Sonny (which is why Monk and Rollins played so perfectly together). That sense of space, syncopation, harmonic brilliance, and wit are all there.

“Paradox” has a Latin feel to it and sounds as if it might be a precursor to “St. Thomas” from “Saxophone Colossus.” Roach’s polyrhythmic drumming pushes Rollins to swing harder and harder.

Billy Stayhorn’s “Raincheck” is built around a simple motif but Rollins and Roach just fly by the seat of their pants and burn though this number like it’s the last thing they’ll ever be playing on this planet. At times, Rollins plays frenetically and at other moments he chooses a few long tones or two or three fast licks. Rollins’ unpredictability makes the music even more tantalizing.

On the album’s ballad “There Are Such Things,” Rollins stretches out in contemplation, searching for new, unexplored turf on his instrument. It’s the subtle minutiae that makes this one of Rollins’ greatest album ballad performances. Some ideas fly by so quickly that if you blink you could miss them. Ray Bryant’s piano solo is melodic and swinging.

The album finishes with Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me.” Rollins and Roach are on fire on this up-tempo standard. The virtuosity of both men on this composition is unparalleled. This is one of the great hard-bop performances of that entire era. The ideas just keep flowing from Rollins’ horn and Roach’s drum kit.

According to jazz historian Ira Gitler, he sat with Miles Davis in the office of Bob Weinstock (the president of Prestige Records) on West 50th Street in N.Y.C. in early 1956. Gitler had the test pressings of what would become Worktime. Miles was so blown away by every track that he played them over and over, returning to certain lines and segments, smiling and getting off from the incredible music. He even called bebop tenor saxophonist Allen Eager and played the album over the phone, especially “It’s All Right With Me.”

I’m with Miles on this one. I can replay many of Sonny’s lines on any of the five numbers on this album many times over and always find something new. After I heard this record in high school, Rollins became my favorite tenor player and still is to this day.

In case you missed or overlooked Worktime, grab it now or take it off of the shelf and play it loud.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.

Books: Brian Arsenault Takes on Kafka’s “The Castle” and Writes To Son Brent About It

April 29, 2015

By Brian Arsenault

Hey Brent,

You asked me to tell you more about the class I’m taking on Franz Kafka’s The Castle. I’ll start with Ed. who’s teaching, or rather leading, the class.

I’ve taken literature courses with Ed before: Kerouac’s The Road, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio so I knew the course would be worth it.

Like Kafka, Ed’s a Jew and he started us off with what he self consciously acknowledged would be a Jewish interpretation of the novel, if indeed it is a novel (more about that later). Ed said that an essential aspect of Jewish life since Biblical times was the lack of “a place to stand,” a place to belong, a place of permanence.  Suddenly main character K’s relentless attempts to belong in a community that does not seem to want him took on a new meaning.

It also seemed to me that, agree or disagree with him, Netanyahu’s ferocious attempts to secure Israel’s continued existence made greater sense than ever. He will battle to hold on to a homeland, a place to stand, a place to be, against all enemies and one in particular. Iran, with its avowed intention to remove Israel from the earth.

Not being a Jew, though, I had to seek my own meaning, not in contradiction but in my own frame of reference. And what I found was the world turned upside down, with conventional reality no sure barometer of truth.

In Voltaire’s Candide, passengers on a ship without food calmly discuss cutting off one buttock of an attractive young lady to roast. The discussion seems reasonable enough; the collected crew and passengers are basically agreeing on a course of action that will save all. Yet they never seem to consider that their meat will involve the horrible mutilation and almost certain death of a young woman.

In The Castle, a family’s fortune is ruined and they become despised outcasts because one of two sisters, Amelia, declines the salacious written advances of an elderly member of The Castle‘s officialdom. What becomes the focus of the community’s ire, seemingly irrationally, is Amalia’s rudeness to the messenger by tearing up the note and throwing it in his face.

Somehow, in a single long monologue, the other sister, Olga, shows K that, looked at a certain way, the whole incident was Amelia’s fault and the family’s fortunes would have been saved, even advanced, had she gone to the offending official. It’s all very reasonable except Amelia would have had to accept thorough degradation. That never comes up.

We also learn throughout the novel, and particularly later on when our assumptions are all challenged, is that what was clear from K’s perspective was not at all the viewpoint of others in the village. A point Ed wonderfully illustrated when, after a particularly vigorous class discussion, he pointed out that we were all coming at the same information from the different slants of our backgrounds and perceptions of reality.

Kafka might have chuckled at that though I don’t think he chuckled often. What he did, though, was have a successful career in business where he was thought effective, efficient and kind but he considered himself a terrible failure.  Regarding his writings, Kafka asked that after his death everything should be burned.  He was only 42, long suffering from tuberculosis. A friend, fortunately, preserved Kafka’s writings and sought their wide publication.

The Castle is not an easy read, far from it. It is dense, repetitive, frustratingly vague, full of subtle twists and turns. The young grow old, the angelic turn soiled, even doorways are lowered as people pass through (Lewis Carroll anyone?)

High art is often difficult. If one considers Vince Guaraldi, say, as compared to Thelonious Monk it’s easy to like, and I do, those cheerful, youthful, Peanutsful melodies of Guaraldi. Monk on the other hand can be a difficult listen, with all that dissonance and melodic shifts. Yet there is little doubt which is the greater artist.

A friend of mine who has also taught me a great deal about literature says he thinks in 50 years no one will read Joyce or other challenging writers. Our devices will hand us ongoing easy entertainment and we just won’t make the effort for the hard stuff. I think he’s a bit pessimistic but I worry about how right he might be.

Finally, is The Castle a novel? That same question has been asked of Joyce’s Ulysses. Neither conform to our notion of a linear storyline which is a basic tenet of what we think of as a novel. Neither provides full resolution of the conflicts and issues within. Neither writer may think there is a resolution.

I think Ed said it best. One reads The Castle for the details, for the differing perception on what is real and what is illusion. The person K seeks most in the book is the elusive Klamm. I read one critic who said Klamm is a Czech word, or close to it, for illusion.

And in Chapter XX we find:  “illusions are more common than changes in fortune-”

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To read more reviews, essays and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


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