Sunday, September 19, 2010

Day 27: Kenny Kirkland and Thelonious Monk "Genuis of Modern Music V.1"

Back in the swing of things with a shiny new computer and an iTunes with a weird new look. Not that it really matters, because it's the same old Albatross. Today there is an actual apples to apples comparison, not that the selections really have to be compared by any stretch of the imagination.

But it's two piano players, the legendary Thelonious Monk and Kenny Kirkland, the late piano player for the Branford Marsalis Quartet.

Kenny Kirkland
Kenny Kirkland

I have to first be honest, I have spent most of this CD being too clever for my new computer. Apparently, after searching for drivers and trying to install them and then make everything work the way it used to, the machine came packed with everything needed already in it and all I had to do was plug stuff in and go. I hate when I'm the one who can't set the clock on the VCR, but then by making that dated a reference I fear I'm doomed to be just that.

I should clarify that, in high school and for some time after that, I was a fan of the Branford Marsalis Quartet like other kids may be fans of Green Day or Blink 182 or Good Charlotte or whatever. (I should have come up with bands from when I was in high school instead of bands that were popular when I worked at the record store, but I honestly couldn't think of any... I was too busy being a fan of the Branford Marsalis Quartet.)

I even sat in an elevator for a few hours waiting for a show to open so I could get tickets. (Perhaps, you are thinking, a true fan would have bought tickets in advance...well, I didn't have a lot of cash and only got paid that day, smartypants.) The show was taking place on the third story of a three story restaurant with a performance lounge. The third story wouldn't open up until the show started and I didn't want to hang out in the lobby. (I found out the third story didn't open up by accidentally gaining access to it and being asked, "Oh, are you with the band?" Foolishly, I said no.) I was joined by a fellow music major (I was a music major at SacState at the time) and we sat on the floor of the elevator waiting it out.

That's when a man in the same Spiderman t-shirt I was wearing walked in with another man using a cane. I made a casual comment about Spiderman and turned to my friend who was aghast. I asked what was up and he simply pointed and went, "Kenny Kirkland." It was then I realized that the person I was talking Spiderman with was Jeff "Tain" Watts. Watts turned to continue the conversation with me once he got out of the elevator but I hadn't gotten the nerve to follow him and I once again missed my free ticket to hang out with the band.

What does any of this have to do with Kenny Kirkland's self titled album? Not much, but I have met him and it was awesome.

In a lot of ways it really is a Branford Marsalis Quartet with Kirkland calling the tunes. There are a few tracks with different artists on that wouldn't happen on a Marsalis CD (since they don't involve the saxophone). So basically it's my favorite band with the piano player calling the shots for a change.

So you'd think I was definitely happy to get this promo. And I likely was. But it wasn't opened. This one actually baffles me, because, like I said, I was a huge fan. I really have no idea how this managed to escape being played even once.  Perhaps it's one of those CDs that I got duplicates of and somewhere in the Albatross there is an open copy floating around. It's a good album, but I'm not an impartial judge.

The liner notes are pretty classic jazz liner notes, even if they are written by Branford himself. It starts out with the traditional throw to the history of jazz, followed by trying to place the artist within that history of jazz. If the player is modern like Kirkland, then you have to establish him or her through the artist's influences.

Then there is the run down of how that artist applies these influences. Since this is written by a fellow artist who actual plays with Kirkland, so it wanders into strict music theory that you'd have to be a musician to understand.

Sometimes I wonder if jazz fans who aren't musicians (at a certain point, I start to wonder if the only fans of jazz music are musicians themselves and this is just natural) understand all of that theory babble that accompanies discussing jazz or if it's just the 'noise' they accept as part of the conversation, like they learn what these mean in the abstract, as if Csus7 means "red" to them or something.

Thelonious Monk
Genius of Modern Music V.1

Monk looms huge. It's hard to pick a Thelonious Monk story to start with to get into my relationship to Monk's music.

Ultimately, I should talk about the first Monk promo I got, and how it led to me having to compete for promos ever since.

I was hanging out with my friend who was the main buyer at the store. I don't know if he had actually gotten to that point yet or not, but that's what he was when he finally left to be the distributor of promos rather than the receiver.

It happened at his apartment where he was going through his own growing Albatross and he handed me a Thelonious Monk CD (for all I know, this one, though it may have been a box set). I was thrown off, for a moment I forgot myself and could only think "How on earth could someone just give up a CD like this?"

From that point I launched unfettered into who Monk was and what he meant to jazz. I blurted out jazz liner note-esque history in some sort of rambling free form--without thinking about it I was trying to talk this person out of giving me the awesome, awesome CD. Who knows what I was thinking.

Later, when taking a playwriting and screenwriting class to hold off student loans while at a junior college, I replicated that speech about Monk in a sort of nonsense play called The Potentially Great Adventures of Captain Sedentary and Stationary Lad. The titles of the characters had actually come from the same friend, as we sort of halfheartedly mocked the distance between our dreams and our ambitions. It was a throw-away script that I thought was a movie except it took place in one room and essentially behaved in every way just like a play. Later that summer, I was invited to turn it into a play to have it performed, and that started the transition from music to film and theater. It all began with me talking about Monk.

Monk is probably the most important non-saxophonist that shaped how I listen to music. He was a bop piano pioneer that didn't use a wall of notes (or, as Ira Gitler would put it, 'sheet of sound,' but he wasn't talking about bop). I became fascinated with his use of dissonance and sparsity. And all of his tunes in the Real Book were challenging to play but sounded awesome once you got them right. It felt good to be able to call a Monk tune that wasn''t Blue Monk. It was like telling the combo, "Yeah, I've been practicing."

Typical of the remasters of the time (and probably still) there are a lot of 'alternate takes' on this album. The pretentiousness of the title, given that it was put out in Monks lifetime from a set of sessions at Blue Note, is forgivable because it comes from someone so completely awesome. Watch the documentary "A Great Day in Harlem" for how the other famous, established legendary jazz musicians react when Monk shows up... and he was still pretty young then. When you're that cool, you get to have a title like Genius of Modern Music.

It might have been the movie "Round Midnight" starring Dexter Gordon that did it in for me. Something about that tune I would play over and over again from the soundtrack while trying to imitate that raspy voice that Gordon had when I told stories.

Well You Needn't is another example of a tune you can't shake but puts you just off balance enough to be thrown for a complete loop once he starts to solo.

And In Walked Bud is one of my favorite charts of all time. I remember going to a tribute to Bud Powell where I think Chick Corea was upset someone else had done that song before him but he just did it again anyway. I mean, it's jazz. It's never the same twice anyway, or you're doing it wrong. I could have that entirely wrong, including who the concert was for. Everything but the song in question is a little hazy.

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