Book Review: Thelonious Monk by Robin D. G. Kelley – The Genius

516zIy5ftWL._Continuing in my reading about jazz, I just finished the masterpiece Thelonious Monk by Robin D. G. Kelley. It was an incredible read about a largely misunderstood genius. I have always enjoyed listening to Monk, but never exactly understood why. Now, I understand that he would decompose chords by removing a few notes or flattening or sharpening one of them and that is one of the things (along with complex time signatures) that marked his work. Unlike the biographies of Miles or Coltrane that I read, this book does not go into transcriptions of his music but rather speaks to up musical laymen about how he was inspired by Bartok and Schoenberg and other modern classic composers – this flies in the face of the urban myth concerning Monk’s art being solely inspired by african-american culture. It was nice to see Kelley debunk most of the myths about Monk: he was a very friendly, engaging person when he was not in a bipolar mood swing. He was not completely disconnected with the world around him. He had many close friends in the jazz world (and was deeply moved when they passed away – most notably Elmo Hope and Bud Powell). It is deplorable that his condition was never detected and that a quack doctor supplied him with damaging vitamin supplements that drove him down lower in his sickness. I was better able to appreciate the albums I love most: Underground, Straight No Chaser, Thelonious Alone in SF due to the description of his many sessions and concerts. It is also sad that he never really got his due and struggled most of his life for money – I learned much to my dismay that f0r one of his earliest and most often quoted songs – ‘Round Midnight – he only received 33% of the rights having been ripped off my the person that submitted the lead sheet for royalties.

If you are a jazz fan and especially if you are a Monk fan, this is essential reading. Let me know how you like it.

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Debates about Jazz – Mtume vs Crouch back in 2010

A colleague passed me a link to this Mtume/Crouch debate, and it was fascinating. I am realising that in Jazz Criticism there is a sort of more conservative school lead by Ken Burns / Stanley Crouch / Wynton Marsalis, and there is a more open, modern one like Mtume. Gary Giddens gets pigeon-holed into that conservative school but I think that – having read Visions of Jazz – that he is of course closer to the conservative school but I think he remains open minded. I haven’t read “Reconsidering Genius” By Crouch but I’ll let you know what I think.

As for Miles’ influence, it is incredible – you know that he transcribed Hendrix solos to the trumpet? They were pals up until Jimi died – and that Jimi tried to incorporate Miles into his playing.

Jazz has been in crisis since the advent of rock music in the early 60s. It was never returned to its peak during the swing era. It got close in the 70s when fusion brought jazz closer to rock and r&b…I don’t know how it comes back. It is not really tuned to the ACD mentality of the millenials or to the hyperlinked society were are in. We are spoiled by melody and heavy back-beats. Miles went that direction with Live Evil, but was not really followed there and it dissipated.

I am fascinating to see what what perspective that Don Cheadle brings to his portrayal to the screen during his Miles biopic.

Anyone else wish to chime in on the debate? I think it is a good time to discuss this before the Miles film comes out so that you are all set for it!


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TV Series: Orange is the New Black S02 – Piper and Alex together again?

vibe-new-orange-is-the-new-black-season-2-shotsDuring my business trip last week, I binged on S02 of Orange is the New Black. If you recall, I enjoyed S01 last year and I was impatient to see where Jenji would take the storyline this year. I love the filming style where we get backfill on each of the women and how they ended up in the can. The acting is of extraordinary caliber – particularly Crazy Eyes! The bad woman this season, Vee, was really well-drawn as we didn’t see her as such a purely evil force until late in the season. I also loved how we dealt with the aftermath of S01 in the first episode and spent the entire second episode catching up with the girls in the prison without Piper there at all. The brief re-appearance of Mendez was excellent as was the fall of Fig. I don’t wish to spoil this for you so I won’t delve into the plot lines but suffice it to say that there are no dull moments here – some comedy but particularly great writing and acting. I don’t understand personally why this show is labeled as a comedy because for me it is closer to a human drama than a straight comedy and the depth of each character is beautifully filled in and all of them – well, except for Vee – become so endearing. If you have missed out on S01, I highly recommend a weekend binge – S01 Saturday and S02 on Sunday :)

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Miles of Miles

113412DI finished both the autobiography of Miles Davis as well as Ian Carr’s excellent biography a few weeks back. Both were exhilarating reading to be honest. As for the autobiography I love Miles’ style injected with loads of vernacular and honest, brutal self-criticism at times and megalomaniac self-praise in others. It was a fascinating look into how he viewed his contemporaries and acolytes – particularly the respect he always paid to Trane was touching. I was not aware of the conflict between him and Wynton Marsalis – that was a bit of a surprise. It is a great document of the inner workings of genius and fame and just deepened my respect for the Miles mystique. Apparently, he spoke most of the text that Quincy Troupe recorded via audio and then transcribed. That gives the text a real casual, conversational feel and makes it such as pleasure to read.

miles-davis-ian-carrIan Carr’s biography of Miles is of extreme interest to anyone that wishes to explore all the various revolutions that Miles instigated in modern jazz: from his first breakthrough with Bird on Now’s the Time, to the cool jazz debut in The Birth of the Cool, to the epic Kind of Blue, the transformational In a Silent Way, the exhilarating Bitches Brew all the way to his music in the 80s…it is all there. I knew only sketches of his story and found the style highly readable and the level of documentation very impressive. I learned an incredible amount and due to this, the music in my collection of Miles has taken on a whole new dimension. For example, I had never paid any attention to the Live Evil album, but thanks to the biography, I discovered the addictive What I Say which I listen to nearly daily now. How Miles consistently discovered the most incredible talent and developed them until they left and created their own groups: Trane, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett, Branford Marsalis…it is really mind-boggling the amount of talent that orbited the Miles universe. Despite being an ego-maniac and a lifetime drug addict (having exchanged cocaine for heroin after the 50s), he was an incredible mentor to so many and never shied away from his ideas regardless of how vanguard they were and how the critics would initially grill him. He was a true artist that, for me at least, is up there in a pantheon including Hendrix, Dylan, Monk, Trane, Zappa, Duke…no compromises. I can STRONGLY recommend this book for any jazz fan.

1404918285_milesImagine my surprise when I learned last week that one of my favorite actors – Don Cheadle of House of Lies and Iron Man – has successfully crowd-funded a major biopic on Miles for release later this year. I am breathless with anticipation. The soundtrack will probably be epic.

OK, gotta finish a Monk bio now and then Billy Strayhorn and Reading Jazz…

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TV Series: Californication S07: The end for Hank?

Californication-300x300This year, Hank Moody flew off into the sunset from LAX back to NY just as he had arrived  at LAX seven seasons ago. Karen by his side and relatively optimistic. It has been a real interesting ride seeing him go through affair after affair, a rape trial, a movie, a TV show, books published and stolen…this was truly a rock-n-roll TV show worthy of Atticus Fitch (season 6) and especially Lew Ashby (season 2). I thought that season 7 was a fairly strong way out after lacklustre seasons 5 and 6. I enjoyed that most of the principal characters were brought back including Becca and Rob Lowe as the outrageous Ed Nero. The cameos of Michael Imperioli (from the Sopranos) and Heather Graham were nice bookends to this show and the plot does give us some closure when Rath suggests that Hank write his own story into a TV script. Of course, Runks and Marcie provide lots of humour with the pathetic and hilarious indecent proposal from Stu Beggs. I am going to miss this show a bit and wonder for ever now whether Hank and Karen can really ever pull it together…or not.

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TV Series: Game of Thrones S04 and Fargo S01 – both amazing shows!

Two great shows ended their seasons this week: Game of Thrones with a tumultuous 4th season and Fargo’s elliptical first. I’ll try to avoid spoilers but some are going to be inevitable.

Game of Thrones introduced (and re-introduced) some characters and then as quickly eliminated them. I really liked the character (and the acting) of the late Oberon Martel – it was a refreshing change. I would have liked to see this character evolve a bit more, but we still have the Sand Snakes and more surprises I am sure coming from Dorne. In the north, the peeks into the backstory (not in the books!) about the white walkers was great as was the skeleton battle. The battle at the wall was a little disappointing (what happened to the giants and why would they throw Mag the Mighty into the very first battle to test the mettle of the men of the Night’s Watch?) but the episode overall was great. I was personally sad to see Ygritte go but as a book reader, it did not come as a surprise. The Dany storyline kind of wanders – as she does in the books, so we will have to wait until next year to see how they pick up the pace. If I can throw in a prediction, I think that next season will end with the battle that is pre-saged in front of Mereen at the end of Dance of Dragons. It was a pity to see her chain up the dragons and for Ser Jorah to be sent off in disgrace. Dumbass should have been a bit more careful. I will not go into all the details of the final sequences for those that may have missed the last episode, but I really found it excellent and very close to the book. I felt that there were a few unsettling parts to how the season was written that were a bit uneven – the rape scene which was forgotten the following episode (and really, really forgotten in the last episode, and the betrayals of Shea because the actress really did give us the impression that she loved Tyrion and even gave up on offers of money and escape from Tyrion to be with him. Are we supposed to believe now that all along Tywin was controlling her? It was a bit of a stretch and I think that these are two places where the writing room made some critical errors. Nonetheless, it was a fine season and probably feature the best final episode so far.

zap-fargo-season-1-a-character-guide-20140415-008Fargo was an excellent take on the movie albeit some years later in hollywood time. It is quirky and full of Easter eggs for fans of the original Cohen brothers movie. In fact, I would highly suggest watching the movie immediately before starting on the show. The acting of Martin Freeman was spectacular as was that of Bob Odinkirk (!!).  I thought I would have a hard time letting go of their previous portrayals of Watson, Bilbo, and Saul but no, they were perfectly suited to their Fargo roles too. Billy Bob Thornton was OVER THE TOP as one of TV’s great badass bad guys as well. I thought that the atmosphere all white up in Minnesota was spectacular and the accents and ways of life of folks were delightfully quirky. The last episode was my favorite as it did wrap things up rather cleanly (other than the deaf guy – what happened to him after? and that naughty neighbor of Grimley? and the horny, drunken widow, what happened to her?) and it was honestly the most satisfying end to a season that I can remember for a long time. Folks have criticised the pacing for being too slow, but I just kind of went with the flow and enjoyed it. The single camera moving sequence in Fargo at the mob headquarters has been compared to that in Beaumont Texas in True Detective and I felt it was more beautiful even if that of True Detective was more exhilarating. If you haven’t watched this show yet, do so and you will probably be pleasantly surprised. I promised no spoilers so I’ll let you discover it for yourself :)

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Reading about Jazz: Giddins, Trane, Pepper and Miles – oh and Dylan too

gary_giddens-visions_of_jazz_span3I have been on a jazz kick for nearly a month. Well, for years actually but recently, more obsessed tha n usual. I had a copy of Gary Giddins’ Visions of Jazz staring at me accusingly from my bookshelf for years, as well as the dense but fascinating Reading Jazz anthology complied by Robert Gottlieb. So, I finally grabbed Giddins and dove into it and was richly rewarded. The book is a series of portraits of various jazz musicians and analysis of some of their more seminal works as he covers the history of 20th C jazz from King Oliver to Don Byron. His style is interesting and passionate – he has seen and talked to many of the musicians so the insights are precious. I started watching the PBS / Ken Burns mini-series called Jazz and he is one of the primary commenters there as well. If you like jazz and wish to dive in a little deeper and understand where it came from, who the most critical musicians are/were and what are the key albums to listen to and own, then this book is for you. Note that there is actually a 2-CD soundtrack accompaniment as well available on Amazon.

straight_life_front_coverI was talking about the Giddins book and my renewed interest in jazz to several friends and new acquaintances and all of them told me that I HAD to read Art Pepper’s fascinating autobiography (co-written with his last wife Laurie), Straight Life. They were so right! I blew threw the 400 pages like Art blowing through his alto on Art+11 and loved it. It is dark and scary but a good reminder of all the reasons NOT to go anywhere near heroin if you have any issues or hangups around self-confidence or self-image in general. The writing is interesting and offers unique views into prison life (he did TWO terms in San Quentin!) and the music business in the 50s and 60s. I have since started listening to his music (honestly I had never listened to him before reading the book) and have been more than pleasantly surprised. Highly recommended even if you are not a jazz fan.

0472101617.01.LZZZZZZZ.gifBesides my new appreciation for Art Pepper, I have always loved the saxophone: Bird, Bean, Prez, Branford, even Clemens and Clinton (LOL) but seriously my favorite sax player of all time has been and still is Trane. Since I was on this kick already, I grabbed a Coltrane biography, (John Coltrane, His Life and Music by Lewis Porter) and really enjoyed it.  I find it fascinating that both he and Miles were both able to go cold turkey and quite smack BY THEMSELVES after years of abuse in each case. Unfortunately for Trane, his body never fully recovered from the abuse and he died relatively young but not after realising some of the most incredible pieces of music in the 20th C. Reading the book gave me a whole new appreciation for A Love Supreme and many of the other later, more complex Coltrane albums as well as his magical addition to the First Quintet with Miles. Truly an incredible and unique musician.

I am now reading Miles Davis’ Autobiography and the Definitive Biography by Ian Carr in parallel and enjoying learning more about my favorite trumpet players. More about those when I finish them.

behind-_the-_shadesLet me finish with a quick word on the Dylan biography, Behind the Shades by Clinton Heylin. If there is one awesome music biography out there about arguably the most prolific pop artist in the 20th C, this might be it. It is well-researched and fascinating and got me listening to weeks to all of Dylan’s catalog particularly the stuff between 1965 and 1975. Note that there is a reissue from about 2006 with 250 (!!!) more pages covering the albums from Oh Mercy to just before Tempest. Definitely a great read. you realise reading it that Dylan’s creative process is VERY similar to that of a jazz musician in that (a) it is very spontaneous (b) it is autistic (if another artist in the studio with Dylan doesn’t “get it” then he is out – there is no “learning” Dylan, either you got it or you don’t and (c) it is highly improvisational – apparently, he rarely plays the same song the same way twice and has constantly re-written songs (several examples of Tangled Up in Blue are mentioned in the book for example) over the year. A great summer read too!

So, you got a favorite musical biography you wish to share? In the comments please :)


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