Thelonious Monk: Underground

Robert R. Calder

Thelonious Monk


Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2003-08-19
UK Release Date: Available as import

Archaeology has become a trendy metaphor for, all too often, approaching a subject-matter with a perspective would-be interpreters of ancient artefacts have had forced on them. Not necessarily knowing enough about the thing dug up, what's broken off, what eroded (details, marks where bits broke off) they have to find the right questions to ask. They have to find the right answers without knowing whether they're asking the right questions.

And now we have the right questions to ask about the last Thelonious Monk Quartet set, since the reality archaeologists have to hope hasn't been wholly lost has come into the hands of Orrin Keepnews. The answer to the question -- for the most part summing up the excellent notes to this CD -- is that the product called Monk by Columbia's sales mob thirty or so years back required in their view processing, packaging and additives. The additives went into the processing, the most ludicrous sleeve photograph. Monk was "known to be funny", so why not sit him at a piano with a shoulder-slung machine-gun interfering minimally with his arms, in a Maquisard hideout, grenades on the table, and a guy in a Nazi uniform roped to a chair in the corner.

The most toxic additive was the sleeve fantasy, of a sort exposed on this CD issue but still extensively in use for sales purposes.

Aw, Hell, I can't type that crap about "Capitaine Monk" having a stuffed Gestapo officer in his music room and only one pet, a cow called Jellyroll. Whoever wrote that was either cynical or deserved to be put not up against a wall, but behind thick ones. The little gink should have been chased back to nursery school, crying.

Where earlier critics have surmised personal friction as the cause of Charlie Rouse's absence from some items on this CD, the new notes report him as having been unable to make one of the dates for plain family reasons. It began and it ended without him, and maybe because everything else had been set up anyway. Thus came into being an unusual and indeed valuable variety of contents on this CD. Why else was the date not cancelled? Why else was there this interesting sample of Monk in piano trio format, other than because it saved the big folks money? Well, in any event this CD has one merit that wasn't planned by Columbia.

They didn't stint on playing time, as I presume Prestige, for instance, were forced to. And they did record reasonably well-organised sessions in most respects. In this case, the organisation didn't extend to programming playing schedules for the maybe 42 minutes to go on vinyl disc. Monk's quartet perhaps didn't get programmed in quite that way. Columbia did, however, realise that the track list had to have a certain look. And so they processed: they cut bits out to shorten some tracks so there would be a number similar to that found on other recordings by the same artist.

Here at last is all the music, which appreciative reviewers have not observed is among the least strongly Monkish of all Monk's recordings. Or maybe a more delicate version of Monkness (not monkishness).

The opening "Thelonious" is characterised by a slurring of melodic lines, and Monk seems to have been waiting for Rouse to come in since he doesn't do much with the theme. Then we get nearly 11 minutes of the quartet, with Rouse playing by anybody's standards exceptionally gently on "Ugly Beauty". He's plaintive, hesitant, and since the balance is right, the prominence of Larry Gales's bass (fittingly timed, duly expressive booms) and Monk's piano emphasise how quietly Rouse is playing. Monk and Rouse play some broken lines together, and Monk sometimes slips to the fore accompanying Gales's deep-toned bass. Rouse comes back feathery and Gales goes deeper in emotional terms during a second solo, with only the ever impeccable Ben Riley (whom God preserve) light and crucially shadowing (or illuminating?). Four men musing together.

Gales is powerhouse on the mid-tempo blues "Raise Four", which starts Monk and proceeds to minimal blues of a sort Ellington was going in for, Gales dancing round the little stabbed phrases, sawing away with his bass bow before his fingers move to walk in the direction of the repeated six-note figure which serves as theme. "Boo Boo's Birthday" and "Green Chimneys" are both dedications involving Monk's little daughter. The theme's like a parody and Rouse seems relieved or released when he can get out of the fixed figures and solo.

One could mistake this relaxed session for a tired one. The trio on "Easy Street" makes small demand on the attention, although "Green Chimneys" opens with Rouse plainly raring to go. It has a lively theme and tends to proceed as a kind of collective improvisation, the accompaniment riffing and feeding and getting answers when it asks for them, repetitions of the occasional rhetorical question, until there's Rouse with bass and drums as on stage (when Monk would sometimes dance cum conduct with his body. His own solo is dancey, some of his phrases over Gales's strong-jigging bass risky -- and when Gales solos with Riley only marking occasional accents, there is the novelty of Monk's essence re-expressed by the bass. To the devil with everybody else, this is just a concert performance and Riley proves that, though often abused, the drum solo can be interesting. The way in which the other three join in is glorious, and I would rather have done away with "Easy Street" than cut what was perhaps the studio valediction of that sometimes great quartet.

The novelty was to have used some of the money saved due to Rouse's absence on getting the studio guest Jon Hendricks to sing on "In Walked Bud", his own words and some scat, stirring Monk to excel as accompanist and spin some nice solo lines (perhaps Hendricks's vocal encouragement and clapping were a real bonus). Monk has nice ideas accenting Gales's solo, and there's Riley on drums again and it's plain just how much was lost when Columbia decided instead to record Monk performances than make something special after the model of Orrin Keepnews.

This is not to take anything away from Ben Riley as a drum soloist. I wonder how much went into the earlier takes of "Boo Boo's Birthday", since the issued one is identified as take eleven. Some of the subtlety of the issued "Ugly Beauty" is missing from the preceding take issued here, but like the second take of "Boo Boo's Birthday", it's fresher. This CD hardly has much priority given the properly large quantity of Monk currently available. There's one heck of a lot on Riverside and the whole Prestige output and a great deal on Blue Note to be heard before even thinking of this one.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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