Mister Misterioso: Thelonious Monk, the man and the myth

Thelonious Monk was an artist regarded by many as something of an outsider during his lifetime, but he was a man whose bold musical birthright now remains undeniable. Brian Priestley speaks with Thelonious’ son, drummer and bandleader T.S. Monk, to chart the legend’s legacy and uncover the roots of his masterful musical innovations

Looking at music in historical terms, there’s nothing like a centenary for focusing our attention. If someone like Thelonious Monk is still being talked about more than 100 years after his birth (10 October 1917), he must have been doing something right. Even if, at the time of his emergence, lots of seemingly knowledgeable observers thought he was doing it all wrong. That’s one of the themes that has been a constant in discussions about Monk, along with the theory that he was elusive, monosyllabic, difficult to work with and – in many people’s eyes – weird.

As for the renewed attention now, of course it helps that newly discovered archive material has been released, in the form of his soundtrack recording for the French film Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Despite having contributed some commentary to the booklet, I must admit to being pleasantly surprised at the ecstatic review coverage it’s received everywhere, including in Jazzwise last month. But, after all, this is Monk and his then-new quartet with Charlie Rouse at their best – and it’s the first new Monk discovery since 2005 when the recording, Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, suddenly surfaced – so it may eventually be seen as one of his essential albums.

Monk’s son, the drummer and bandleader T.S. Monk, who says “I never get tired of talking about my father”, is clearly gratified too. Though he was only nine-years-old at the time of the recording, he was aware of the special event of Monk doing a film soundtrack. But seeing it resurface after some 55 years was still a surprise. “Well, it wasn’t on our radar, but we kinda knew it was sitting there somewhere, because after all it was used in that movie.” One of the minor revelations of this rediscovery is the participation in part of Monk’s session by French-American saxophonist Barney Wilen, doubtless thanks to the involvement of music director Marcel Romano who had previously used Wilen in Miles Davis’s recording for Lift To The Scaffold.

“I remember guys would look at his music and say: ‘We can’t play this’, but by the end of the rehearsal everybody was playing it anyway.” – Sonny Rollins

So, what comes to mind when you see the names of Miles and Monk in close proximity? Is it Miles’ classic Christmas Eve 1954 Bags’ Groove record session, where he complained about Monk’s backings and allegedly threatened to throw a punch (a story that persists despite the fact that both Monk, who stood several inches taller, and Miles himself later rubbished the notion)? Or do you recall that they were happily working together the following summer at Newport, where Miles made his famous ‘comeback’ by playing ‘’Round Midnight’ (and ‘Hackensack’)? And do you take on board that Miles’ 1956 recording of ‘’Round Midnight’ and his versions of ‘Well You Needn’t’ (1954) and ‘Straight No Chaser’ (1958) contributed substantially to their popularity as jazz standards?

More importantly, do you look beyond the rumour mill and the potted histories, and realise that ‘modal jazz’ was not invented in 1959 with Kind of Blue or even the previous year’s Milestones? It would be easy enough to indulge in similar oversimplification and say it was invented in May 1952 when Miles, out of nowhere, suddenly suspended the chord sequence of ‘Dear Old Stockholm’ by adding interludes based on pedal points (and turning a 28-bar song into a 42-bar song). Or had he been listening to Monk, whose ‘Well You Needn’t’ (first recorded in 1947) and ‘Little Rootie Tootie’ (recorded later in 1952) have harmonically static A-sections, as is the B-section of ‘Monk’s Dream’ (1952). And ‘Bemsha Swing’ from the same year has a sequence as restricted as Miles’ ‘So What’, so it’s no surprise that Miles and Monk together had a ball with it in 1954.

Photos: courtesy of Alain Tercinet (private collection) - this and the photos below

“I watched him tutoring John Coltrane, I watched him tutoring Miles Davis, watched him tutoring Bud Powell,” says T.S., who was sufficiently into music as a child to be given a pair of drumsticks by Max Roach at the final recording session of Brilliant Corners. According to the pianist himself, Davis already used to sit in during the mid-1940s when Monk was working for the legendary Coleman Hawkins, one of the few big names to espouse the work of Thelonious. It’s long been known that Hawkins recorded three early tunes later copyrighted by Monk, namely ‘Hackensack’ (Hawk’s version is titled ‘Rifftide’), ‘Stuffy Turkey’ (or just ‘Stuffy’) and ‘I Mean You’. But author Lewis Porter recently revealed that Hawkins’ first-ever totally unaccompanied saxophone session included a one-chorus improvised version of ‘’Round Midnight’ (the obscure ‘Hawk’s Variations Part 2’, now available on Mosaic and even on YouTube). Which makes Hawkins only the second person to record the tune, after Cootie Williams but before Dizzy Gillespie.

Given that Monk became a teenager in 1930, it’s hardly surprising he was steeped in the swing era, which is clearly evident from riffs such as ‘Hackensack’, ‘Stuffy Turkey’ or ‘I Mean You’ – it’s even been suggested that the last-named is based on the chords of a lesser-known Ellington song, the 1938 ‘Lost In Meditation’. This is, of course, why he was ripe for encouragement from the great pianist-arranger Mary Lou Williams when he encountered her in Kansas City, where she was already the queen of its nationally influential jazz scene and its wide-open nightlife. (The shout-chorus of her ‘Walkin’ And Swingin’’ for the Andy Kirk band is the first use on record of the opening phrase from ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’, which probably didn’t originate with Monk himself.)

It’s intriguing to see that three of Monk’s key mentors were all female. First, the stride pianist Alberta Simmons, who lived near the Monk family when Thelonious was growing up in the San Juan Hill area of NYC (where the Lincoln Centre stands today) – interestingly, T.S. quotes his father as saying that he “took out the oompah from stride piano”, with the implication there’s a lot of that style left in his playing. Then there was the unnamed evangelist for whom Monk played the new swinging gospel-music, touring the country in his first professional job in the mid-1930s. And Mary Lou. It’s worth recalling too that his strongest supporters were his mother Barbara (who subsequently allowed him to live at home through his twenties, working out his music rather than bringing in regular money) and, after 1947, his wife Nellie.

Thanks to Mary Lou and Hawkins, we have informed comments about the evolution of Monk’s playing. Williams, interviewed in 1954 by Melody Maker, said that, “When he was in [Kansas City] he jammed every night, really used to blow on piano, employing a lot more technique than he does now… He felt that musicians should play something new, and started doing it. Most of us admire him for this.” That was during the mid-1930s but, by the time he was in the house band at the subsequently famous Minton’s (1940-41), he was already recognisable – if not very audible on some of the informal recordings made there. By the time he was with Hawkins (between 1944 and 1946), he was beginning to arouse opposition from some listeners and Hawkins, interviewed a dozen years later, recalled them berating him with remarks like “Why don’t you get yourself a piano player? What is that guy trying to do?”

It seems clear then that, as well as producing sounds that were startling to listeners in the mid-1940s, he had deliberately pared back his technique – which he claimed had, in childhood, been capable of executing the works of Chopin, Rachmaninoff and others. And that he did so in order to perfect a personal language at odds with the norm, involving angular single-note lines played with a heavy touch, which also enabled sparsely voiced chords to sound a lot richer than they look on paper. So it’s understandable, if not forgivable, that someone like Oscar Peterson said, in effect, that Monk was an interesting composer but, as a pianist, not so good. This led to journalist Leonard Feather asking Monk to comment on a Peterson track, to which Monk’s famous response was “Which way is it to the toilet?”

By the way, I’ve no wish to undermine Feather’s copyright, but I have to report that the only time I approached Thelonious backstage he took one look at my bulky portable tape-recorder loaned by the BBC, and said “Which way is it to the toilet?” I didn’t mention my claim to fame when speaking to T.S., but he did observe that, “Monk came from a family of jokers and, when he was around the home, he was full of games and jokes. With us, he was a very happy, fun type of guy. He became a more reserved person in his later years, which were marked by emotional issues. When the light of fame finally fell on him later, he became unhappy at how the critics had dealt with him. But I would never ascribe to the austere personality that some people attributed to him.”

It was actually T.S. who, in the valuable 1988 documentary Straight, No Chaser, drew attention to his father’s serious emotional problems that became more prevalent from the 1960s onwards, although there were clear clues much earlier. Monk’s masterly biographer, Robin D.G. Kelley, wrote that in the 1940s: “Very few psychiatrists, let alone lay people, understood the causes and nature of bipolar disorder at the time, so it is not surprising that musicians, fans, and especially journalists, interpreted Monk’s behaviours as quirky personality traits or evidence of eccentricity.” These behaviours include going several days without sleep while focusing on some musical problem, followed by sleeping for a couple of days without rising, as well as more gossip-evoking habits as getting up from the piano and shuffling in time to the band, or his obliquely humorous comments.

Of course, the terse humour is also deeply embedded in Monk’s actual music. I don’t just mean the clanging bell-like sounds incorporated into ‘Little Rootie Tootie’, the childhood nickname of T.S. (still known to his intimates as ‘Toot’). It’s also written all over the supra-bebop tunes such as ‘Skippy’, ‘Trinkle Tinkle’ and ‘Four In One’. Even the simpler tunes, when you study them, have those surprising but ultimately logical turns of phrase that rely on the unexpected to make their memorable point. T.S. feels strongly that Thelonious had already gone beyond bebop by the early 1950s: “I feel that bebop actually confined Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, so I don’t go along with this idea of [Monk as] ‘the High Priest of Bebop’. I feel that Thelonious was more like ‘the father of modern jazz’.”

As well as being a possible play on his family name, the ‘High Priest’ publicity must have seemed a good idea to Blue Note who, coming late to the new style, recorded Monk in depth just as he turned 30. He was already being mentioned as the grey eminence behind bebop, but the idea was nailed down in the DownBeat piece by photographer-journalist Bill Gottlieb (set up by Mary Lou and published before Monk signed with the label) that dwelt on his seemingly modest and reserved personality. Gottlieb, who actually called him “the George Washington of bebop”, also quoted ex-bandleader Teddy Hill apparently taking aim at his own ex-sideman, the relatively well-publicised Dizzy Gillespie, and stating, “I think [Monk] feels he got a bum break in not getting some of the glory that went to others.” But Hill also went on to anticipate the later comments of Mary Lou Williams, and indeed T.S. Monk: “I believe he hoped one day to come out with something as far ahead of bop as bop is ahead of the music that went before it.”

This might have been a hope too far, since nearly all of Monk’s most individual tunes, with a few dramatic exceptions, are in traditional AABA form and mostly in 8-bar sections. But it’s revealing that he chose in 1957 to work with Coltrane, who had already made advances in his stints with Gillespie and then Davis. Trane’s reaction is well-known: “I felt I learned from him in every way – through the senses, theoretically, technically.” And don’t forget, before that Monk had worked for some years with Sonny Rollins, who was rehearsing with the pianist while still in high-school. As well as acknowledging his debt, Rollins also referred to Monk’s aural teaching methods: “I remember guys would look at his music [charts] and say: ‘We can’t play this’, but by the end of the rehearsal everybody was playing it anyway.”

As far as I recall, Monk never commented publicly about either Coltrane or Rollins, apart from a possible oblique reference to the latter in a more revealing 1965 DownBeat piece by Val Wilmer. “I haven’t done one of those ‘freedom’ suites, and I don’t intend to. I mean, I don’t see the point. I’m not thinking that race thing now; it’s not on my mind. Everybody’s trying to get me to think it, though, but it doesn’t bother me.” He did, however, say, “I have to take care of my family. But I’ll help a lot people, and I have…” As Robin Kelley noted, Monk played a number of benefit concerts in the early 1960s for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and, in fact, the 1957 all-star bill at Carnegie Hall was a benefit for a community centre in West Harlem.

Summing up Monk’s contribution to the world of jazz, his son points out that not only is ‘’Round Midnight’ by far the most covered jazz song (with 1,750 versions, according to one recent count), but he is by now the second most recorded jazz composer ever. The unspoken winner in these stakes is of course Ellington, and it’s worth a moment’s thought that Monk’s distinctive playing style owes quite a lot to the earlier master’s pianistics, as noted recently on the books page of Jazzwise 223. If you want a practical demonstration, try and hear the 1938 Johnny Hodges track ‘Dancing On The Stars’ and Duke’s improvised solo therein (but not the YouTube audio of someone playing the sheet-music, absolutely straight!). And, as with Ellington’s piano, Monk is impossible to imitate directly – “People try”, says T.S., “but, after three notes, you know: ‘That’s not Thelonious’.”

T.S. himself has played an honourable part in keeping his father’s name in the limelight, thanks to the famous Thelonious Monk Institute founded in 1987, though he points out that its role is to publicise jazz in general. “It’s all inclusive, celebrating Ornette Coleman as much as Duke Ellington. But Thelonious himself was the quintessential prototype for what a musician wants to be. The great Ron Carter said to me, ‘Your father is a triple threat. He had a style that’s unique, he wrote tunes that musicians want to play, and he pushed the music forward’.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: Subscribe to Jazzwise

Life-changing albums: Talk Talk's 'Spirit of Eden'

Vocalist and songwriter Julia Biel talks about the album that changed her life, Spirit Of Eden, by Talk Talk. Interview by Brian Glasser

I heard this album during my first year at university. It was, shall we say, a difficult time for me. I’d been continually listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon; then a friend at my college, who I often talked to about music, introduced me to this record – and I had it on loop for months! I enjoyed how it luxuriated in space and time. I found it extremely comforting, and urge everybody to seek it out. I was living on the ground floor in a quad and I had my window open, so the whole quad heard this album – a lot!

I didn’t know then that the album had been recorded in darkness over a year. They got in a load of different people who were asked to play stuff in a dark studio – they must have been given a tempo and a key, I suppose – and then, Mark Hollis, the founding member of Talk Talk, and his producer [Tim Friese-Greene] pieced the album together from everything. Apparently, they tried every possible permutation of what they’d recorded. Mark then wrote lyrics over the top.

It was a bold move because they’d had a big hit with their previous album, The Colour of Spring, which was much more commercial. In the intervening period – and again, I found this out subsequently – Mark’s brother had committed suicide. So you can imagine, it goes quite deep, as he is trying to work through all of his feelings. Actually, he’s denied it has anything to do with his brother; but it certainly has a profoundly spiritual quality to it. This music seems to come from a subconscious place. I think part of what drew me to it was that it had this sort of religious ambience. Not that I’m a religious person, but the way music can be so spiritually moving is contained in that album. I don’t know whether it had such a big connection with me also because I was coming from having heard and performed a lot of choral music in my adolescence – Fauré’s ‘Requiem’, Handel’s ‘Messiah’, things like that.

There are lots of things on the album that you wouldn’t usually put next to one another – the marriage of driving rock guitars with overlaid oboe arrangements is quite odd! It was criticised for sounding like a free jazz album, because it’s got that element to it as well. There are long stretches where there’s just one instrument moving slowly and wistfully through its melody before it comes to a groove. But everything is very precisely placed, as you would expect from something that took so long to assemble. So when the grooves come, they’re extremely meaningful – every instrument, every sound is drenched in meaning – and at the same time, there’s a lot of restraint in it. It’s driven by an urge to go as deeply as possible into the realm of rock music, trying to make music with all kinds of instruments. It’s quite trippy – I’m drawn to things that are quite out there and take you on a journey.

 

‘It’s got such innate wisdom and a purity that cuts through to the essence of whatever state of mind I might be in’

 

I love the way it has space and also extreme dynamic shifts. That’s a real success of how the record was mixed. It’s difficult to handle extreme dynamics and it was done amazingly – the sound of this record is incredible. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t dated at all, and also probably because they were using real instruments. It sounds like a contemporary classical piece.

I should talk about his singing too. It’s clearly untrained, but very heartfelt, and emotive, and powerful. You mostly can’t hear what he’s saying, but you catch odd words like ‘salvation’ or ‘ascension’ or ‘flesh’ that reinforce the spiritual thing. I still listen to it now and it still speaks to me – not just nostalgically. It’s got such innate wisdom and a purity that cuts through to the essence of whatever state of mind I might be in.

I wasn’t making or performing music at that time; but I think it awoke in me the urge. It revealed to me that music could be very potent; and I think that attracted me subconsciously to music as a thing to pursue. I think the direct influence on my musical practice is through things like dynamics, which I’m very interested in; and also space in music – I try to bring that to my work. Plus, the attitude: the music isn’t afraid to tackle big subjects, to paint them using sound. For me, at least, this record set the bar very high!

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Jazzwize magazine. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: Subscribe

Life-changing albums: Gil Evans’ ‘Into The Hot’

Pianist Alexander Hawkins talks about Cecil Taylor’s seismic contributions on Gil Evans’ Into The Hot, in a tribute to the late pianist who died 5 April 2018. Interview by Brian Glasser

Into The Hot, officially a Gil Evans album, was a real epiphany, but it’s the Cecil Taylor aspect that really did it for me. Taylor contributed three tracks; the other three were by Johnny Carisi, with Gil Evans conducting the orchestra on those. The album was in some senses like a curated collection of Third Stream music

But it’s curious – I’m not sure this is even my favourite Cecil album: pianistically, that would probably be Silent Tongues; compositionally, perhaps I prefer Unit Structures; it’s not the most beautiful; it’s not the one I have the most sentimental connection to, which would be the one with Louis Moholo. But it’s absolutely gripping; and more than all of his other albums, it’s a Rosetta Stone for understanding where he came from, and what was to come, and how he fits into contemporary music generally – not just jazz. It’s got the characteristic of a manifesto. I can’t think of anything like it! It somehow shows directions he didn’t take, which makes it even more rewarding and inspirational. He’s so quixotic that you can’t say his entire language was mapped out – but there’s a lot here.

It grabbed me from the start. I’m a complete Ellington junkie, so I understood this record immediately – if not fully, then intuitively. It’s so Ellingtonian in concept as far as composition goes. Plus, there are definitely pianistic precedents in there – not just Ellington, but Tatum, Powell and Monk. It certainly wasn’t the first Cecil record I heard, but it was among the early ones, and for the uninitiated there’s enough in his piano playing to grab onto – it’s not completely alienating. You can hear him improvising over an explicit swing beat, which is interesting in terms of understanding his rhythmic language later on when it becomes abstracted from that.

I went back to the album recently when Kaja Draksler and I arranged these pieces for a septet featuring two pianos at a festival in Amsterdam, and had to transcribe them first. Exploring them in that mechanical depth renewed and deepened my understanding. So, though I’ve always loved them, going back over them in that way helped me appreciate technically how extraordinary they are.

 

‘He’s using everything to enable his imagination to go crazy – it all serves as a springboard, it’s not just a post-modern collage’

 

Above all, you have to admire his single-mindedness. That should be one of his main legacies – to inspire people to be single-minded. More specifically, there are lots of things that I’ve taken from it into my work, both in terms of playing and writing. I think the quantity of very explicit composition on it is what would be most surprising to those who know Cecil Taylor only by reputation. Endless column inches have been expended calling him a ‘free jazz musician’; but this is very organised music. There are not many 1961 albums with that volume of composition on them. Although it’s organised, structurally he’s doing things that you’re not hearing anywhere else, apart perhaps from the most sophisticated Ellington things. ‘Bulbs’, one of the tunes, feels almost palindromic – there are some very strange structures in that; and the way these units are used and moved within the composition gives a clue about how he would later use motivic and harmonic units in his more abstract music. You can already see his preoccupation with musical architecture.

It’s also been an influence on me because it shows a way that you can reference music you love and at the same time make that into something personal. So, for example, during ‘Bulbs’, you can hear the James Brown R&B music of 1961; but there’s also an almost shocking prescience of the funk, too. ‘Mixed’ has a passage that is reminiscent of classical music in how it’s scored; immediately following that, there’s a ballad where Jimmy Lyons plays Johnny Hodges to Taylor’s Ellington (and Shepp plays Ben Webster). All these influences are forged into something that isn’t at all derivative. That’s inspirational to me as a composer. As a free jazz pianist, he did create a licence for wildness – there are moments when he does use cutting loose as a device. But he deploys that language knowingly and sparingly. So, in my view, he’s using everything to enable his imagination to go crazy – it all serves as a springboard, it’s not just a post-modern collage.

Strangely, I don’t remember the first moment I heard the record! It was probably at my local record shop in Oxford – I’d have been a teenager. I’ve always been a student of the music. I grew up with the piano tradition; and because Taylor was so much part of that, this was just something I needed to hear.

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Jazzwize magazine. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: Subscribe

Life-changing albums: 'Bande À Part' by Masqualero

Pianist Tord Gustavsen talks about the album that changed his life, Bande À Part, by Masqualero. Interview by Brian Glasser

Different albums have been important to me at different points of my life – albums offering support in crisis, offering uplifting energy, offering comfort. For instance, Glenn Gould’s Bach: The Goldberg Variations, Emmy Lou Harris’ Wrecking Ball and Billie Holiday’s Lady In Satin. But if I have to name only one, it’s Bande À Part by Masqualero. That was a true turning point. I heard it in the early 1990s – right after leaving Hurdal, where I grew up, to start university in Oslo. So it coincided with that phase in my life – leaving home, when I was 19 or 20.

The weird thing is, I don’t remember exactly how I came to hear it. I think the link was probably ECM – I already had some albums on that label, including some Terje Rypdal and a Paul Bley that I got as a present. Seeing it was on the same label, I bought it. But it might have been the striking cover image.

 

‘The lyricism, and the open spaces and the mysteriousness and beauty, all combined at the same time’

 

I had it on CD, never on vinyl (I went directly from buying cassettes to CDs). Vinyl only became part of my listening habits more recently. Now I understand the magic! I was living in a small room in Oslo, that I rented from relatives. I bought large speakers for the first time, really good ones – I still have them, actually – and I was really connected to this stereo system. I listened to all the records that I liked repeatedly. I became totally immersed and felt every curve of the music.

This one really drew me in – the lyricism, and the open spaces and the mysteriousness and beauty, all combined at the same time. I liked it the first time I heard it, but it also grew on me. Some of the compositions took a little longer to stick. It contains fundamental lines to music that I have kept following. The saxophonist on the album, Tore Brunborg, has been in my quartet – it’s such a treasure and blessing to be able to play with him, and to connect with the roots that trace back to that record. Nils Petter Molvær does some of his finest work on this album, and I’ve played with him too. Then, of course, there’s Jon Balke on piano – along with a few stride players, he’s my main inspiration as a pianist. I even wrote a thesis partly about his playing during my few years in the academic world. The drummer, Jon Christensen, was one of the leading lights of European jazz at that time. From Bande À Part I went on to listen to the Jarrett-Garbarek albums with him on drums, which were amazing. So the links from this album, in addition to the album itself, have been hugely important to me.

It turned me towards… I haven’t put this in words before… a certain abstraction, but still with a sensual focus. The fact that you could open up harmony, open up the soundscapes rather than play stiffly on chord changes; the fact you can have dreaminess and great melodies at the same time. Before then, my musical orientation was already quite broad, because I played jazz, fusion, gospel and classical piano a lot. So, I was deeply into Ravel, Debussy, Shostakovich, Schoenberg and Bach; but this provided me with a vision where impressionist harmony and jazz sensibility worked together, where open harmony could come from improvised settings.

Technically speaking, this was all a bit beyond me at the time. That was part of the mystery. I understood a little, but there were parts I couldn’t get immediately. With other stuff, I was used to being able to copy it right away and understand the chord changes. I could do that with some of this; but other parts, I thought “Wow, what are they doing?”

Reflecting on it now, it also turned me away from something that I later had to go back to: after my years in the conservatory – actually in the transition between my first and second ECM albums – I started connecting again to the grounded simplicity of the lullabies and hymns. My composing took the experience of radical openness, but connected much more profoundly to the basic sensuality of the hymns and lullabies, and the gospel-tinged impressionist stuff. Bande À Part was a turning point, one which took me away from the spot to which I would later return, where I would find myself again…

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Jazzwize magazine. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: Subscribe

Life-changing albums: Paul Motian Band ‘Psalm’

Guitarist Jakob Bro talks about the album that changed his life, Psalm, by Paul Motian Band. Interview by Brian Glasser

‘I could have chosen Miles’ Four and More or Coltrane’s Live at Birdland – they were the first records where I realised how music can become a part of you if you learn how to listen – to feel part of it, as if you were actually inside there. That was why I started to become serious with music, and how it became the thing I started searching for all the time. But in the end, my choice has to be Psalm, by Paul Motian.

I was around 18, and I was playing more traditional jazz guitar at that time. Then I got involved with two young musicians who were listening a lot to hip hop music, as well as Wayne Shorter and Coltrane – some different styles! In other words, while I was listening to music from the 1930s and 1940s, they were listening to stuff from the 1960s and 1970s. One of those guys started listening to Paul Motian, and I heard this album through him.

Compositionally, soundwise, and in so many other ways, it changed everything for me. Even though I didn’t get it at first! I thought it was difficult to relate to this new music with my instrument – as opposed to Charlie Christian or Barney Kessel. At the start, I just heard the first song and didn’t understand. Compositionally, it has a super-simple melody. Paul is playing bells, Bill [Frisell] is playing with the synth sound. I thought, ‘Is this jazz music, or what?’ I didn’t listen to the rest straightaway. But I bought the CD from a good jazz store in Copenhagen that’s still there. I just kept listening to the first song and got used to the sound. I carried on composing and practicing and playing; and every once in a while, I found that I was drawn to that sound. I would go back and listen – and still not be ready! Then at some point – maybe a year later – I went back and the timing was right; suddenly I saw it. Now I think that the spirit in this record is an expression of Paul’s whole career.

I love Frisell obviously, but at that time I didn’t really think of his playing on that record as a guitar. I’ve never sat down and transcribed any of his playing on that album. It was just part of the overall sound for me; and it was that sound, of the group, that I was inspired by. And I just love Lovano – he’s one of my biggest heroes. I actually think I’ve listened more to horn players than guitar players.

 

‘He showed me how to go from song form and into harmony. I hadn’t heard that anywhere else’

 

The other main reason I chose this record is because later I got to know Paul in New York and worked with him, and his influence has been so big on my music. I went to New York mainly to be able to see Paul play – I didn’t dream of playing with him. I became friends with many of the musicians in his Electric Bebop Band. I took some lessons with Steve Cardenas, and met up with Chris Cheek, and became friends with Kurt Rosenwinkel. And all of that was to learn and get closer to the source, in a way. Sort of out of the blue, I suppose because I knew all the musicians around him, I was the one that got recommended when a vacancy came up. So I sort of engineered it, a little bit – I tried to be around it as much as I could – but as much for my learning process as anything else.

Paul’s way of putting bands together, of sort of creating a family of the musicians he’s working with, was very inspiring to me. Also his way of writing opened up a lot of things. He showed me how to go from song form and into harmony. I hadn’t heard that anywhere else. Then there’s the way he kept trying his compositions in new settings later on in life. He kept developing his music and none of the stuff he did earlier ever became stale, it was always fresh. That’s all very, very inspirational.

He was a step on a ladder for me. My way into ECM, to get to make records on that label, was because of Paul. I was very sad when he died, of course. I still don’t really believe that it’s happened. I had a period of time with him – I toured with him and recorded with him, and that was a highpoint for me. Actually, it has been the most important meeting for me in my musical life; and that’s non-changeable.

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Jazzwize magazine. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: Subscribe

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