Peter Madsen / Jorrit Dijkstra / Guus Janssen

October 13, 2003

Sphere Essence: Another Side of Monk

Playscape PSR #J010303


Plays the Music of Lee Konitz

Geestgronden GG 021

Playing the music of a well-known jazz composer can be a double bind. Play it too cleanly and people think you’re just a copycat, play it too unconventionally and others think you can’t make the changes.

These are the challenges facing the musicians on these tribute discs, but happily the five have managed to overcome most of these pitfalls. While remaining true to the spirit of Lee Konitz’s — and by extension Lennie Tristano’s — ideas in one case and Thelonious Monk’s difficult pianisms in the other, they’ve individually come up with CDs that reflects themselves as much as the honorees.

Sound-Lee is made up of four Dutch musicians who had an interest in Konitz, Tristano and their circle long before this CD was organized. Pianist Guus Janssen, whose work encompasses opera and orchestral work as well as improv, has said that “Tristano’s style fit me like my pants, but then you have to wear the pants.” Yet here in a tribute to the American pianist’s first and most famous acolyte — and the one who was the first to break with Tristano — Janssen introduces influences that the inflexible Tristano would never have countered. Janssen’s brother — and long-time playing partner — drummer Wim, and bassist Raoul van der Weide, who has worked with everyone from pianist Burton Greene to trombonist Joost Buis’s eight-piece Astronotes Extended, are along for the ride.

In the unenviable role of playing Konitz to Janssen’s Tristano is the now Boston-based alto man Jorrit Dijkstra, who previously has involved himself in difficult but rewarding pitch-shifting solo saxophone and lyricon work and with a trio immersed in electronics and sampling. Yet he was already studying Konitz’s work in the mid-1990s when Janssen first met him. On this CD he too brings extended techniques and antithetical jazz references to Konitz’s Tristano/Cool school oeuvre.

If The Dutch quartet copes with reinterpreting the work of a player who usually operates a distance away from the big time jazz business, imagine the potential hazards American pianist Peter Madsen is up against. Not only is Thelonious Monk — the man whose music he’s celebrating — known for his idiosyncratic compositions, but Monk managed to maintain his singularity for nearly 40 years, while operating in the thick of the conventional jazz scene.

Madsen, who now divides his time between New York and Bregenz, Austria, faces this in a personally paradoxical fashion. He approaches Monk’s music from two different sides. In one he calls on the mainstream experience he gained playing with the like of tenor saxophonists Stanley Turrertine and Benny Golson; the other extends the experimental position he has shown with players like saxist Ted Levine and bassist Mario Pavone. As someone who has studied all of the older pianist’s work, he includes some of Monk’s less familiar tunes here as well as Monk’s “hits”.

Let’s start in Holland, though. Unlike some CDs, the 70-minutes program flashes by as if it’s half the length, perhaps thanks to the pop melodies underlying many of Tristano’s and Konitz’s pieces. But the treatment here is tough enough to put an edge on the proceedings.

For instance on “Ablution”, which was Tristano and Konitz’s recasting of “All The Things You Are” not only can you sense the original tune, but also the bop line underneath it. Creating melodies in both hands that end with an EuroImprov turnaround, Janssen’s work is doubled by Dijkstra’s squeals and trills in the latter half of the track.

Then there’s a speedy opening of “Paolo-Alto”, where the saxman’s deeper tones, near screeches, honklets and spetrofluctuation not only excavate the artifacts from “Strike Up The Band”, but seems to introducing “I Want To Be Happy” as well. However, the reedist’s extended techniques are something from which Konitz still stays away. Meanwhile in his corner, the pianist seems to be playing boogie woogie figures, something the cerebral Tristano would likely have frowned upon in his teaching days; while the drummer figuratively tap dances on his drum heads. Expressing himself on the tippy-top treble keys, Janssen replicates real honky-tonk stylings at the end of his solo.

Dijkstra is by choice a sloppier and harsher player than Konitz, something that’s made clear on his own “Near-Lee”. A hand-clapper that features Latinesque rhythms, the saxophonist starts off his solo with blaring duck sounds, modulates to a fluffy vibrato, then slides up and down the scale, with more double tonguing, slurs and burrs that any Tristanoite could imagine. Pianist Janssen slides and strums chords, creating tiny études that seem to go off on tangents than circle back to the main theme. Although the drum solo almost loses the musical thread, Dijkstra’s turnaround reprises the theme and gets everyone back on track.

On the andante “Ice Cream Konitz”, individual notes are emphasized the way tenor saxist Charlie Rouse did when working with Monk. And Janssen ,who seems to mix 19th century impressionism with splashing octaves during his solo here, is even more Monkish than in other places. Rococo legit formalism works in lockstep with tremolo syncopation on “Kary’s Trance” to such an extent that despite a waterfall of notes, the pianist seems to be channeling Monk not Tristano. And is that “Mysterioso” that gets quoted on “Hi Beck”? It certainly sounds like Monk’s music with its behind-the-beat effects.

Perhaps that’s why SOUND LEE works so well. Despite the delineated homage, the four aren’t straightjacketed into the Tristano/Konitz style, but definitely include outside and more modern influences.

Back in Austria where SPHERE ESSENCE was recorded, Madsen appears to approach Monk in a fashion opposite to where the Dutchman took Konitz. If their Konitz is harsher and more disorderly than the original, Madsen’s Monk is tidier and more conventionally tonal than the pianist/composer was in real life.

A much more technically proficient and expansive pianist than Monk ever was, Madsen has a tendency to add more notes to the compositions than Monk would have wanted. But he does know his jazz history. On many of these tunes he goes beneath the Monkisms to expose the early Broadway show tunes and Harlem rent party influences that are part of the compositions’ DNA.

This is clearest on “Hornin-In”, a little-known number Monk recorded in 1952 with a sextet featuring trumpeter Kenny Dorham and saxophonists Lou Donaldson and. Lucky Thompson. True to form, the version here makes the tune appear half Broadway and half stride, with lots of free association tremolos, rolling octaves and plenty of arpeggios sliding over the keys. The extended tremolo at the conclusion makes it sound as if it was written to be part of some forgotten 1920s musical.

“Trinkle tinkle” is reconstituted with a quasi-player-piano rhythm that creates a mind picture of keys pulsating up and down. There are even ragtime suggestions in the oh-so-proper syncopated accents, with a reprise of the theme appearing in the final 30 seconds.

“Evidence” begins with the familiar theme plinked from the piano strings, with dampened hammer pressure giving it rhythmic expression, and pedal constrain helping manipulate variations on the melody. Earlier left-handed thumps give way to another reprise in the highest pitch. “Monk’s Mood”, with its overly gentle, sliding scales allows Madsen to sounds out every note with an insouciant swing. But with so many emphasized notes giving the tune a night club vibe, it sounds as if it may be Bill Evans’ mood or Wynton Kelley’s, but not necessarily Monk’s. The same thing happens with “Oska T”, which becomes darker and more dramatic — almost melodramatic — than it was in Monk’s version, with the piano techniques very much on show. Madsen is learned enough to showcase a different theme in each hand, but the piece almost become a standard bop line.

Some of this recasting at least shows off Madsen’s individuality and the pianist can be praised for giving us a different view of Thelonious. But “Ugly Beauty” is a definite misstep. Almost a supper club parody of Monk’s music, the pianist seems to smooth out all of its angularity and trade its rhythmic impetus for a light slide from high keys to a comfortable middle range.

Other tracks that could have been eliminated are the three, all-under-two-minutes “Monkaludes”. Talented enough to manipulate the internal strings like a National steel guitar and create harp-like arpeggios or percussive interludes here, Madsen should have realized that these performances are fulfilling in themselves. They don’t appear to have much to do with Monk and would probably have been better placed on another session.

Built on the piano dexterity that Monk lacked or chose to ignore, SPHERE ESSENCE is only partially successful because Madsen has flatten many of the composer’s jagged edges. SOUND LEE works much better because the quartet members have done the opposite: roughed up Konitz’s tunes and given them more swagger.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Plays: 1. Progression 2. Hi Beck 3. Palo-Alto 4. Near-Lee 5. Ablution 6. Kary’s Trance 7. Ice Cream Konitz

Personnel: Plays: Jorrit Dijkstra (alto saxophone); Guus Janssen (piano); Raoul van der Weide (bass); Wim Janssen (drums)

Track Listing: Sphere: 1. Thelonious 2. Evidence 3. Hornin-in 4. Oska T 5. Ugly Beauty 6. Monkalude T 7. Criss Cross 8. Monkalude S 9. Trinkle tinkle 10. Four In One 11. Monkalude M 12. Feeling That Way Now a.k.a. Monk’s Mood

Personnel: Sphere: Peter Madsen (piano)