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Recorded at the Ravenna, Italy jazz festival in 1987, and including some of Thelonious Monk’s classic compositions, this exemplary demonstration of post-bebop jazz presents five remarkable musicians at the very top of their game.
Leading the group is the legendary bassist Buell Neidlinger, a musician distinguished not only by the size of his talent—his extraordinary acuity, accuracy, intonation and tone—but also by what one writer called “the sheer, bewildering diversity of his resume.”
Possessed of an uncanny affinity for virtually every category of music, Neidlinger, as a bassist and cellist, and in clubs, concerts, on records and for TV and films, has worked in every imaginable musical context from polka bands to the Boston and Houston Symphony orchestras. The people with whom he’s played range from Lester Lanin to John Cage and they number among them such luminaries as Cecil Taylor, Ben Webster, Dick Wellstood, Tony Bennett, Herbie Nichols, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Igor Stravinsky, Elvis Costello, Gunther Schuller, Billie Holiday, Lester Young and the Beach Boys.
Neidlinger takes a justifiable pride in his history and his ability to shine in any musical situation. But if he’s a monster soloist (go immediately to “Epistrophy” and “Reflections” for confirmation) and not without an ego, his first purpose—the specific use he wants to make of his astonishing virtuosity—has always been to “serve” the music he’s playing, whatever it is. And this attitude extends beyond his role as a sideman. It applies to bands that he fronts as well. He puts bands together, he says, to “play and promote other people’s music.” In this instance, Thelonious Monk’s music.
Neidlinger regards Monk, with Ellington and Herbie Nichols, as the “greatest” of American composers, and bemoaning the fact that, because of their idiosyncratic nature, Monk’s tunes—like those heard here: the riff-rollicking “Epistrophy,” the intensely melodic “Reflections” (among the most beautiful of Monk pieces), the witty and humorous “Little Rootie Tootie” and the compellingly built “Criss Cross”—are largely neglected by current jazz musicians, he wants to correct this circumstance. “Monk is on a level that very few got to,” Neidlinger says. “I mean in the sense that he created a sound and a concept. It was probably Monk who had the most to do with creating those tunes at Minton’s Playhouse—to confuse guys like Coleman Hawkins—and which became bebop. I want to keep the tunes of Monk alive.”
And the band that Neidlinger assembled to accomplish his objective is more than up to the assignment.
Nat Hentoff called the tenor saxophonist Marty Krystall, who’s played with Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, “one of the most passionate, powerfully swinging, and just plain unselfconsciously original players in all of jazz.” And Kirk Silsbee observed that “Krystall remains one of the strongest reed players in jazz. His mobility on the tenor and ability to retain a fullness in any register is formidable. He can slide effortlessly into the stratosphere and avoid the thinness that plagues so many overtone excursions. Just as quickly, he’ll drop down into a low explosive note for an accent and be up the ladder again.”
I would add that Krystall’s ability to stir the emotions is matched by his stunning inventiveness. (His work on “Epistrophy,” “Reflections” and “Criss Cross” offers especially salient examples of the breadth of his capabilities.) I always thought of John Gilmore as having been the best of the lesser known tenor players in jazz—until I heard Marty Krystall.
The late pianist Brenton Banks came from much the same musical background as Thelonious Monk, but as a gifted violinist as well as a pianist, he spent most of his career in Nashville where, as Concert Master and String Arranger for the likes of Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins and Elvis Presley, he attained something of a legendary stature of his own. In addition to his achievements in country music, Banks was an authentically creative and individuated jazz soloist (check out his right hand on “Epistrophy” and “Reflections”) and, in Neidlinger’s words, “a wonderful comper.” He was also a venerated teacher who could claim Jim Hall and Hank Crawford as his students.
Billy Osborne has a connection to Neidlinger that reaches back to the ‘50s, when they accompanied Chris Connor and Big Joe Turner together. Of Osborne, Neidlinger says: “He’s one of the greatest drummers I’ve played with—he’s right up there with Philly Joe Jones. Coltrane and Miles wanted him to play in their bands.” Osborne, who has worked with Ray Charles and Wes Montgomery among myriad others, is a bright and intuitive drummer, thoroughly versed in all genres of music from R&B to every species of traditional and modern jazz.
And Steve Lacy. If Neidlinger views this set as being more about Monk than about him, he also wants it to function as a reminder of the considerable artistry that was the late Steve Lacy’s. Invited to join in on the gig, Lacy, an expatriate since the early ‘70s, came down from his home in Paris to play it. And renewing a musical relationship with Buell that began in 1955, when they both worked with Cecil Taylor (and later with Gil Evans and Jimmy Giuffre), he acquitted himself brilliantly.
Lacy, who single-handedly brought the soprano saxophone into modern jazz and in whose hands the instrument seemed almost to be an organic extension of himself, was no stranger to Monk. On the contrary, a devoted disciple of Monk since the late ’50s (and a member of several of Monk’s bands), Monk compositions, notably in a group he co-led with Roswell Rudd, had long been at the center of Lacy’s repertoire. In fact, he had made of himself the leading interpreter of Monk tunes.
Recognizing, as he said once, that Monk’s “harmony comes from the melody,” Lacy’s expertly composed solos never fail to respect this essential aspect of Monk and they are, everywhere here, beautifully structured—by turns heated and jagged, soaring and lyrical.
So played by elevated musicians, all of whom fully comprehend the intricacies and complexities of Monk’s rhythmic, harmonic and melodic uniqueness, this is a ferociously exhilarating album that from the opening notes of the high-velocity “Skippy” (Monk’s satiric take on “Tea For Two”) crackles with energy and marvelous interplay.
Indeed, feeding, challenging and extending one another, these musicians make each of the tunes models of group interaction (listen to the astonishing unity and the wondrous exchanges on “Little Rootie Tootie” for a prime case in point), and they succeeded in producing a set that, in its entirety, yields new marvels with each hearing.
A master played by masters.