Tuesday, October 11, 2005

All Across The World, Jazz Snobs Have Messed Their Pants

Posted by Picasa

Last Tuesday, Blue Note Records released the sort of
compact disc that causes people like me to get all weird
and overwrought. You see, for decades it was a jazz
critic commonplace that the Thelonious Monk-John
Coltrane partnership was transcendental, life-changing,
historic, and any number of other big time adjectives.
Yet, these same critics would invariably then complain,
no one thought to record those few months back in 1957:
a few stray tracks put down in the studio and a very low-
fidelity tape made by Coltrane’s first wife was all there
was to document such a legendary, storied period. For
saxophone-freaks, this was a particularly egregious
lapse: 1957 was the year Coltrane became Coltrane after
all, the time when he jettisoned his bad habits for good
and decided to remake himself into the greatest musician
of the 20th century. In an era where major (and even
some minor) artists churned out four to six albums a
year, this lapse in his discography seemed like a kind
of cosmic joke.

If that’s so, the punchline finally came this year, when
it was discovered that our humble, frequently-denigrat-
ed government had been holding one of the Jazz Dork
Holy Grails all along. Deep in their archives was a tape
of the two men, along with Shadow Wilson on drums
and Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, playing a Carnegie
Hall benefit. Now, some forty-eight years after their
collaboration, we finally have a high-quality, full-length
document of the great partnership. Thelonious Monk
is at the height of his powers here and John Coltrane
is at last realizing his: the music they made together
deserves all the hyperbole their cults have thrown at it.

But you don’t have to know any of that to enjoy the
album. It is beautiful regardless of history, a thrill
even without the intricate backstory that appeals so
much to obsessive people like me. Listening to Monk’s
tricky, dancing piano work on "Monk’s Mood" remind-
ed me of the way it felt to love jazz before I knew any-
thing about it: like it was something glowing, mysterious,
and eternal. And when Coltrane comes in on that same
number, with a mournful, low mutter that rises to
become waves of slow, electric sound, the effect some-
how manages to be both hypnotic and electrifying at
the same time. Most of the way through, the men play
the song as a duet and here we can have one of the
rarest of artistic experiences: two geniuses working
together on equal footing, a single brilliance emerging
from a pair of very different, very idiosyncratic aesthetics.

You should buy it. You would like it too, I think.

(And just a side note here about the benefit Monk and
Coltrane were playing. Besides them, the bill included
Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, Zoot Sims, Ray Charles, Dizzy
Gillespie, and Billie Holliday. The highest ticket price? Four
dollars. In an age when even the most wretched nontalent
feels comfortable charging $60.00 for nosebleed seats,
that’s enough to make me cry. Those shabby beatnik
bastards never knew how good they had it...)