Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"Catching Trout" with Whitney and Monk

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

This piece gets its title from the “Catching Trout” essay in Dinosaurs in the Morning: 41 Pieces on Jazz by Whitney Balliett. Published in 1962 by the J.B. Lippincott Company, it along with The Sound of Surprise is one of the earliest compilations of the writings of Whitney, the long-time Jazz editor for The New Yorker magazine.

Aside from its literary elegance, another of the wonderful qualities of Whitney’s writing is that as a non-musician, it relies heavily on metaphors, allusions, and imagery.

Balliett’s style is less about analysis, theory and structure and more about similes, euphemisms, and personification.

However he chooses to express his singular point-of-view, Whitney’s way with words never detracts from the pleasure he derives from the music and its makers.

See what you think.

Catching Trout

“THERE is an unbroken Olympian lineage at the top of jazz — Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, and John Lewis — which has been distinguished by the curious fact that all its members are composers, arrangers, leaders, and pianists.

Monk, however, has added an authentic dimension to the qualities he shares with his colleagues, for he is an almost unparalleled performer. Monk is not a vaudevillian in the sense that Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Gene Krupa are. Instead, he offers the rare spectacle of a man pleasantly and unselfconsciously obsessed by his art. He is, in fact, a transparent, pliable vessel that takes on the shapes, colors, and movements that his emotions, washing against each other within, may dictate on a particular night.

A bearish, densely assembled man, with a square head and an oblique face that emits a veiled but unmistakable light, Monk never merely sits at a keyboard. He will hunch his shoulders, elbows akimbo, and knead the keys, bend backward, bring his elbows in, shoot out his forearms, and pluck notes from either end of the keyboard, as if he were catching trout with his bare hands. Then, a giant hammer, he will hit several closely grouped chords, simultaneously jerking his torso. If he is accompanying he may abruptly "lay out" and unconcernedly mop his head, neck, and hands with a flag-size handkerchief, or he may wind his body sinuously from side to side in half time to the beat and, his arms horizontally crooked, slowly snap his fingers — a dancer gracefully illustrating a step in delayed motion. Monk's feet carry on a steady counterpoint. Flattish and nimble, they alternately rustle about beneath the piano, flap convulsively, and dig heel first into the floor. All of this is by way of saying that Monk's five selves were in notable balance early last week, at the most recent of the "Jazz Profiles" concerts.

The affair, held at the Circle in the Square, was given over entirely to Monk's present quartet, which includes Charlie Rouse, Ron Carter, and Art Taylor.

There were eleven numbers, all by Monk, including "Straight No Chaser," "Crepuscule with Nellie/' "Well, You Needn't," "Blue Monk," and "Ruby, My Dear," as well as less familiar pieces like "Hackensack," "Epistrophy," and "Ask Me Now." Two infrequently heard Monk compositions—"Monk's Dream" and "Criss-Cross" — were scheduled but never rose to the surface. There were surprises in almost every number. "

'Round Midnight," a ballad with a purplish melody that gives the impression of being too finished for the meddling of improvisation (Monk himself generally sticks close to its melody in his solos), was taken at a jogging double time, which stripped it of some of its stateliness.

In "Well, You Needn't," done in a medium tempo, Monk offered an exceptional display of his accompanying technique behind Rouse. He started with offbeat melodic chords, changed to dissonant chords that climbed steadily and slowly up and down the keyboard, released acrid single notes in the upper registers, splattered a chord with his right elbow, and then, falling silent, began one of his Balinese dances. His backing here suggested that he was using Rouse's work as a soft clay on which to record his thoughts; elsewhere, he seemed to be rubbing pleasurably against the grain of Rouse's playing.

"Crepuscule with Nellie," a slow hymn-lullaby, received tantalizing treatment. The first chorus was played straight by the group, and then, with the audience prepared for improvisation, the number ended.

"Blue Monk" was taken at a medium-fast tempo instead of its usual slow rock, and thus paved the way for the closing numbers, "Hackensack" and "Rhythm-n-ing," two steam baths that left the audience at that exquisite point between satisfaction and wanting more at which all audiences should be left. Monk is a master of this art — in the way he measures his solos, his numbers, and even whole concerts.”

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