STEVE LACY/GIL EVANS
Sunnyside/Owl SSC 3505
Programming a CD of jazz classics can be a mugs game, especially if the compositions have a familiar resonance for many people. Play them too close to the originals and they sounds like imitations; make them too different and they sound like parodies.
This brand-new CD by a Mediterranean trio and a reissued disc by two American jazz masters attempt to overcome the challenge in different fashions. Although impressive, neither is 100 pert cent satisfying.
POMO to the Nth extreme, TRINKLE TRIO is supposed to be an example of minimalistic repetitive patterns -- according to the booklet notes -- but instead appears to be a Heavy Metal take on the music of Thelonious Monk. No jazz composition is sacrosanct, yet, while the band lead by Sicilian guitarist Paolo Sorge understands Monks idiosyncrasies, the members often miss the craft that underlined even his more astringent compositions.
Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and pianist/arranger Gil Evans were POMO almost before there was a MO(dern) -- Evans was born in 1912 and Lacy in 1934. Ironically, for a saxist who has made a career of interpreting Monks music, this is one of few CDs that doesnt feature any of that pianists tunes. On the other hand, he and Evans -- on one of the latters final recordings -- turn their talents to interpretations of three Charles Mingus compositions, one by Duke Ellington and originals. Sparse and bluesy, the performances weaknesses arise from the fact that Evans mostly plays electric piano and that in a duo the masterful orchestral colorist is limited to being a piano-player.
A touring unit, the Trinkle Trio laid down these 13 tracks -- prologue, epilogue and 11 Monk tunes -- in 2002. To some it may seem that the majority of pieces are played too uptempo and with too conventional rhythm. Nevertheless hard thought obviously went into the interpretations. Its just that while the trio has come up with a solution on how to deal with familiar tunes, the solution is unfortunately almost the same for each one.
A ringer -- hes French, the other two Italian -- tuba player Michel Godard has insight into these sort of projects, having restructured ancient and/or atmospheric music in period or POMO settings with the likes of French cellist Vincent Courtois and sympathetic Italians like trumpeter Pino Minafra and percussionist Tiziano Tononi.
Percussionist Francisco Cusa, who like leader Sorge was born in Catania, but now lives in Bologna, has worked with Sicilian avant players like saxist Gianni Gebbia and created a solo sound track for a Buster Keaton film. Yet here his rhythm sounds as if its inspiration is more from Alex Van Halen and Iron Maidens Clive Burr than Monk favorites Art Blakey and Art Taylor.
Part of the disconnect may come from Sorge, who teaches, plays jazz and works on TV, radio and film projects. During his schooling he took master classes from John Scofield, Joe Pass and Joe Diorio among others and throughout he seems to be trying to force the pieces into a guitar mold, rather than adopting his guitar playing to Monks vision.
As early as I Mean You -- with the theme carried by Godards tuba -- the tune seems to have mutated into a shuffle featuring Hawaiian guitar slides. Later, the tubaists digressions on the theme almost wilt beneath Sorges distorted reverb and effects pedal, so that the result is more Telstar than Thelonious.
This Hawaiian reverb reappears on Monks Mood, with its balladic tone heavy with delay from the guitars bass strings. Although it shows one of the few examples of his brushwork, Cusa treats the piece as exotic nightclub fodder, with punished woodblock thwacks, whirl drum expressions and Afro-Cuban percussion.
What could be African junkeroo percussion, chunka-chunka rhythm guitar beats and an extended tuba ostinato makes its appearance on Bye-Ya as well. As the drummer continues hitting his cowbell, Sorge involves himself in Hard Rock-style, razor-sharp flat picking and slurred staccato riffs extended with effects pedal distortion. Its a glimpse into what would happen if Al DiMeola and Billy Cobham ever decide to play Monk.
Putting aside the overdone arena rock guitar rasping, tremolo distortions and the time the drummer seems to suture a reggae backbeat onto another tune, the only other real disappointment is Crepuscule with Nellie, a tender tune Monk wrote for his wife. Using a wah-wah pedal to project slurred feedback and repetitive tones, Sorge seems to encourage Cusa to thrash different parts of his extended kit, and symbolically goose Godards tuba line enough so that the Frenchman appears to be taking some undignified hops away from the melody. Reverb from the guitar seems to suggest that Nellies twilight is in the 1960s in Haight-Ashbury with Quicksilver Messenger Service, not the 1950s in San Juan Hill with Monk.
Some experiments are more memorable, though. Friday the 13th works as crackling, low-pitched thematic variation, bisected by slap tonguing issuing from Godard. Cusa adds speedy paradiddles and Sorge gives up chicken scratching and reverb distortion to double the tubaists thematic line. Little Rootie Tootie is looped with some tremolo knob effects that keep the melody spiky, although the vaudeville-style drumbeats could be been lost. Evidence gains an expansion of time and volume as Cusa plays half-step percussion, Sorges volume knob distorts the undertow, and Godard vaults to his top range to squeal out grace notes.
Distribution of timbres and interpretations is much less severe on PARIS BLUES, captured in that city by musicians who first recorded together in 1957, before any of the Trinklers were born. Still the two manage to make something of the most familiar material.
Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, for instance -- an overrecorded ballad like Monks Round Midnight -- is almost transformed here. Done with a funky Dr. John/Ray Charles-style beat, its taken andante, not at the usual dirge-like tempo. Furthermore Lacy begins with a deconstructed version of the chorus, then get into the familiar verse. Evans accompaniment is all splayed electric piano chords, a reminder that he had already done his investigation of Jimi Hendrixs work and collaborated with singer Sting.
Equally impressive is their version of Mingus Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress Then Blue Silk, though at almost 15 minutes its a bit drawn out. Lacy distinguishes himself by weaving quotes from other Mingus pieces into his solos, while the tune provides glimpses of Evans expansive (real) piano work. Starting with disconnected, high frequency syncopation, he eases out the perpetual rhythm of walking bass mixed with glissandos for a semi-boogie-woogie. With cascading timbres and pounding octave runs, there are times that he sounds as if hes quoting Rhapsody in Blue or some Chopinesque piano exercises.
Strummed chords and the suggestion of honky-tonk piano characterize his playing on the first version of Lacys Esteem. Featuring low frequency swing, left-handed tremolo and some pretty respectable flashing lines, hes still no Bill Evans, which for some might be praise. More abstract here, Lacy begins with a prolonged shriek that abates into mid range, then emphasized vibrations rocket into dog whistle territory until Evans halves the tempo to encourage unison work.
On the tunes second version the pianist sticks to jaunty tremolo and pounding offbeat harmonies. Intriguingly, as he relaxes into the piece, his time sense starts to resemble that of Monks, though, incredibly, he was almost a decade older than the other pianist. Unfortunately, though, at the end of the tune, there seem to be several unfocused silences and pauses that suggest that Evans was starting to show his 75 years.
More emblematic is Evans work on his own Jelly Roll, which links cascading monochromic piano chords with lighter-than-air soprano tones. Strangely, on this salute to Jelly Roll Morton, jazzs first arranger of note and thus Evans direct antecedent, the pianist seems to be locked into rollicking walking bass tones, more Meade Lux Lewis boogie than Mortons blues. Following a unison elaboration of the head by both men, the piece ends with Lacys thematic variations and Evans almost impressionistic fills.
Other tunes are mellow and a bit lightweight, especially when the electric piano shoves the improvising out of the jazz club and into the cocktail lounge.
All in all though imperfect, the work of the two veterans on PARIS BLUES shows how strong personalities can give hoary jazz standards new life. Though unique, TRINKLE TRIO works less well, since at times reconstitution of the compositions seems to negate their original intent. With this lesson internalized and his obvious technique intact, perhaps Sorge will score more unequivocally another time out with less distinct source material.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Trinkle: 1. Prologo 2. I Mean You 3. Evidence 4. Bye-Ya 5. Crepuscule with Nellie 6. Trinkle Tinkle 7. Misterioso 8. Ask Me Now 9. Monks Mood 10. Friday the 13th 11. Locomotive 12. Little Rootie Tootie 13. Epilogo
Personnel: Trinkle: Michel Godard (tuba); Paolo Sorge (guitar and electronics); Francesco Cusa (drums and percussion)
Track Listing: Paris: 1. Reincarnation Of A Lovebird 2. Paris Blues 3. Esteem 4. Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress Then Blue Silk 5. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat 6. Jelly Roll 7. Esteem
Personnel: Paris: Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone); Gil Evans (piano, electric piano)
November 24, 2003