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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Working with James Joyce

This Saturday, (March 2nd - details below), I'll be premiering a new piece based on the writing of James Joyce. In doing it I'm very fortunate to have three of France's finest jazz musicians - Dominique Pifarely (violin), St├ęphane Payen (alto), and Christophe Lavergne (drums), and the great Irish saxophonist Michael Buckley, playing with me. The mix of irish and French musicians isn't accidental, since the piece is called 'Counterparts - Joyce in Paris and Dublin', and is based around work he did when living in those two cities.

Music was very important to Joyce and his works are filled with descriptions of music, songs and singers. He himself was reputedly a fine singer, and he even competed in the Feis Ceol, (a venerable Irish amateur music competition, which is over a hundred years old and still going), entering the competition as a tenor. Joyce’s language is also very musical both in terms of rhythm and alliteration. The cities of Dublin and Paris are similarly very important to Joyce’s work – born and raised in Dublin but spending over twenty years of his adult life in Paris, both cities played crucial roles in his life and work.

The first impetus for writing the piece was my rereading of ‘Dubliners’, and being made aware again of Joyce’s musicality. The idea of Dublin and Paris came from my passing ‘Shakespeare and Company’  - the famous Parisian bookshop which had such an association with Joyce – on a recent trip to Paris. Since I’ve also had a close association with several French musicians in recent years, it was a short jump from the reading of Dubliners and thinking about Joyce’s life in the artistic hotbed that was Paris of the 1920s, to coming up with the idea of writing a piece for French and Irish musicians, based on writing undertaken by Joyce in both cities.

We also rehearsed the music in Paris and in Ireland  - before Christmas Michael and I went to Paris and rehearsed with Dominique, St├ęphane and Christophe, and now we're at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, a beautiful artist's retreat here in Ireland, working on the piece and putting the finishing touches to the shape of it.

‘Counterparts’ is partly written and partly improvised, and uses audio taken from street sounds recorded in markets in Dublin and Paris - it's always fun and a different kind of challenge to work with audio. The piece also uses text from various works both as a generator for the music, and in spoken word format as an integral part of the piece. Sometimes I’ve used direct material from the music in Joyce’s work, including ‘Say Goodbye To Girlish Days’, Joyce’s only known musical composition. In other parts of the piece I’ve used ideas from the works he wrote in Paris or in Dublin as generators of musical ideas. 

In Counterparts I’ve tried to create a unique environment for improvising musicians to explore the work of Joyce through musical means, and through that to reveal to the listener the sheer musicality of Joyce’s prose.

For  anyone in Dublin this Saturday March 2nd is interested in seeing the finished result of this work, you can come to the National Concert Hall at 1.05pm where the piece will be premiered as part of the New Music Dublin festival. Full details here

And here is a video clip of some of the rehearsals from Paris last year.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Anatomy of Perfection - Monk's 'Jackie-ing'

I first heard 'Jackie-ing'  almost forty years ago when my father brought home a compilation double LP of Monk's Riverside recordings. At that time I had no technical knowledge or experience of music - I wasn't to become a player until much later and knew nothing about structure, form, jazz history or anything that would have given me an insight into Monk's music. Yet I was attracted to this music immediately. There was just something about it - a vibe, wittiness, swing, or more accurately, the combination of these elements - that spoke to me with an immediacy I don't think I'd experienced with my father's other jazz recordings. 'Jackie-ing' was a stand-out for me, even then. I listened to it so many times, loving it on an intuitive level, and I've been listening to it ever since. Like all perfect music, it never gets old, and this really is perfect music. Flawless.

Almost forty years later I began to think about what elements were involved in this track that made it so great, and when i began to investigate it in an analytical way, the music revealed even more facets which were always there, but were not so obvious. Like investigating any great music, (such as Bach or Bartok), an analysis of Jackie-ing reveals some of the reasons why it's so great, but still remains mysterious.

The recording was made in 1959, and featured Monk's long-time saxophonist Charlie Rouse, (who had only recently joined Monk at the time of this recording), the brilliant Thad Jones on the rarely heard cornet, who puts in an extraordinary performance on the whole album, and the stellar bass and drum team of Sam Jones and Art Taylor. It's an interesting recording in that it's one pf the few times that Monk recorded with the classic bebop line-up of trumpet (or cornet in this case), saxophone, piano, bass and drums.

This piece is classic Monk and in a way encompasses all the virtues that make him so unique - the slightly awry humour, the seemingly naive tune that catches you unawares, the incredible swing, the sonority and rhythmic complexity of the comping, and above all the primacy of the melody in determining the whole piece.

The Melody

The melody is an extraordinary affair - an almost banal tune that creates an anything but banal atmosphere. A seemingly simple 16 bar form, with a unison call/response melody that is largely made up of quarter notes, but which, through the use of displacement, catches the listener unawares, making you feel that you've somehow missed something. I remember when I was a kid, listening to this for the first time, thinking that perhaps the LP had skipped! This effect is achieved through the simple but brilliantly effective displacement of the main phrase of the theme. In measure 12, Monk starts the final phrase of the theme two beats earlier than you would expect, throwing everything out of kilter and effectively displacing the entire final theme phrase. This makes the theme finish two measures earlier than you would expect, leaving the drums to fill in the space at the end of the form that you instinctively feel shouldn't be there.

This displacement dominates the whole piece, as it infects the soloing throughout. It keeps the listener slightly confused all the time, because while the horns refer to this unexpected melodic twist in their solos, the bass and drums place the changes in the more traditional sixteen bar form. So everything feels like it's not quite lining up.

Monk also creates this dual world of off-kilter simplicity by the way he comps the melody, bringing the full range of his control of dissonance and understanding of piano sonority to bear on the melody. The placement of these clangorous chords is very strategic, and when you listen to the melody a few times you realise that there's nothing random or accidental about them. In measure four of the first head, Monk placed a very dissonant E natural in octaves alongside the humdrum F of the melody. This jarring effect is repeated at the same point in the second time through the head, but this time Monk uses an E and an Ab, (an octave and a major third above the E) to create the dissonance against the F. He does this in exactly the same way in the in-head and the out-head - clearly this order of dissonant chords was something that was planned in advance and is part of the composition rather than being something that was improvised on the spot.

The harmony of the tune is also  quite mysterious. Mostly centering around Bb major (with a very prominent sharp 4th), with a few excursions to the territory of V chord, it strongly features the notes E and A, and yet Monk adds this mysterious Ab in his comping which one imagine would suggest a Bb7 chord (but which never appears). Again we are in the world of duality - a simple diatonic type Bb melody but with the major 7th and tritone clamouring for attention and an errant Ab buzzing around the theme.

Bass and Drums

 (Sam Jones)

A huge amount of credit for the success of this track must go to Sam Jones and AT, whose contributions are judged to perfection. The connection between Jones' quarter note and AT's ride cymbal is sublime - both of them play forcefully yet neither of them are dogmatic. The beat is is clearly agreed between them, and they create what can best be described as a loping swing feel that  both clears the ground yet is rooted to it. Jones note choices are always interesting, he never does the expected, yet he clearly outlines the changes. AT keeps the ride cymbal going throughout, there are no real fills, but the snare and bass drum keep up an insistent, percolating rhythmic counter-melody throughout. His wonderful 8-bar intro is a perfect example of what he does throughout the track - swings hard but with a melodic intelligence informing everything he does

Charlie Rouse

Rouse was never my favourite Monk tenor player. I always felt he stayed too long with Monk and all those live albums show someone who knows the music very well yet never really pushes it in the way that Coltrane and Rollins did. I also love Johnny Griffin on the live 5 Spot recordings. Griffin's playing with Monk is often maligned, but I think his playing on those recordings is inspired, the sheer amount of ideas he has and the technical ability he has to carry them out, is staggering. The usual criticism is that he plays too many notes, but if you're going to level that at Griffin you have to level the same charge at Trane!

But I'm getting off topic here - in this recording Rouse is absolutely at the top of his game, his tenure with Monk is just beginning and no doubt he was less jaded than he must have become in later years, playing the same tunes over and over again. His solo on 'Jackie-ing' is marvellous, starting off by brilliantly juggling the theme in different ways, paraphrasing it and using it, rather than the chords, to create his solo. Listen to the first chorus and Rouse's effortless reworking of the theme.

He goes on reworking it until he gradually moves away from it, at least in the sense of clear paraphrasing. By the end he's making more references to the underlying harmony and finishes with a wonderful phrase that doesn't feel like the kind of phrase or place, (the first bar of the form), where you would finish a solo. But despite the unorthodox last phrase, Thad picks it up in the 4th bar and uses it to launch his own solo - reminding me of an improvisational relay race where the baton is handed over effortlessly. Here's that moment:

Thad Jones

Thad Jones was hugely underrated. He was revered as a big band writer, but his abilities were pretty much all-encompassing and he was one of the most original trumpeters ever to play in jazz. Immediately identifiable, he was quirky yet swinging, completely in the tradition yet totally surprising. His note choices and use of thematic material to advance his solos showed how compositionally he thought, and in this regard he's up there with other thematic improvisers such as Sonny Rollins and Jim Hall. And, like Rollins,  this made him an idea foil for Monk and his music. Never one to just run the changes, his ability to fully investigate the simplest motif and set off in pursuit of an idea, while never losing sight of where he was in the overall scheme of things, was unique among trumpeters and had few peers on any instrument.

Here he is simply brilliant. I never tire of his solo on this tune, it's remarkable for its sense of internal structure, respect for the atmosphere of the music, great swing and sometimes startling note choices. While not quoting the melody as closely as Rouse does, his solo still reflects the theme by the way he uses sometimes banal-seeming phrases which through brilliant rhythmic and timbral manipulation become startling. I always feel with his solo here, that though it faithfully follows the harmonic scheme of the piece, that if you took the solo out of the context of the tune, it would create its own internal logic, independent of the melody or chords of the tune from whence it came.

What's interesting harmonically is how he'll often skip notes in the scale and by doing so suggest a slightly Asian pentatonic quality to the line. The descending line he plays in this next clip, at face value conventional in the extreme, suggests a pentatonic scale consisting of Bb, D, E, G and A. This contradicts the conventionality of the phrase itself - more duality. And at the beginning of the next chorus he suggests a C major pentatonic, but heavily disguised by an up-rushing rhythmic shape that seems anxious to escape the confines of his cornet.

Monk himself helps Jones achieve this duality by virtue of his comping. One the things that I love about this track is that Monk comps throughout. These big slabs of bright dissonance appear throughout the piece in an amazing variety of rhythmic places. He is clearly engaged from start to finish and the way he ensures the primacy of the melody through comping that only obliquely refers to it, is an object lesson in both accompaniment and compositional thought through improvisation. And check out the way Monk picks up Thad's last phrase and uses its shape to start his solo - which puts him in a 3-beat cycle which is superimposed over the four of the bass and drums - something he resolves effortlessly........

Another feature of this track, and something that is common on a lot of Monk recordings, is that the solos don't follow the usual bebop dynamic curve, where each soloists starts quietly and then builds to a crescendo before handing over to the next guy. Here the dynamic remains the same throughout and the soloists could finish at any time. In fact this whole track is very far away from the bebop tradition where harmony rather than melody is the main instigator of improvisation. Here, the melody and the comping boss the whole piece and the soloists' prime concern is with melodic manipulation coming directly from the theme.

Here is the whole piece - a masterpiece in which you couldn't add a note, or subtract a note to or from anyone in the band without diminishing the overall piece.

There are very few perfect pieces in recorded jazz, but this definitely one of them