The new record from Sydney, Australian duo Circle Pit is a sprawling mass of sincerely tweaked rock logic that’s built largely upon a non-urban tradition. Pressed up on vinyl for stateside consumption by the Siltbreeze label, BRUISE CONSTELLATION is saturated in youthful ingenuity, specifically the strain that values confidence over competence. Also on display is the ability to combine seemingly disparate influences into a workable whole, an impulse that proliferates quite often in small towns, out of the way places and forgotten, neglected cities. In this case it all really starts with the incongruence of the name, which frankly inspired images of jack-boot clad, stubble-domed hardcore youth to dance through my consciousness in predictably macho fashion. But a solid gander at the album cover presented a wildly different animal (see above), appearing like a possible snapshot of two trashed out warriors reenacting John and Yoko’s legendary Bed-In for some appreciative pals, replete with mink coats and lap dogs. And don’t worry, Circle Pit’s music pales not one bit next to this mouth watering imagery. In many ways the overall direction of this pair (plus help) could be summarized as a non-drugged-out, far less knowingly hipster version of the great Royal Trux, but that really doesn’t do much to stress the elements that make this wonky LP such an outlandish yet cohesive listen. One minute they remind me of a rural high school incarnation of the Red Kross, the kind of sincerely goofy and gangly band comprised of excitement-drunk glam-addled teenagers that somehow manage to win first prize at a punk-rock battle of the bands hosted in a skanky backwoods roller rink. The next moment they give rise to the aura of oddly tuned bedroom 4-track private-press lonerism. There is a dollop of acne-riddled DIY shambling, a strong dose of mustachioed Phil Spector worship that sounds extracted from the toxic sweat glands of Lester Bangs’ fresh cadaver, and the sort of stunted riffing that screams “amateur” in the best way possible. You ever sit around listening to Straight Records-era Alice Cooper while smoking skunk-bud from a corn-cob pipe? Yeah, me either. But I wouldn’t be surprised if these two have. Circle Pit’s combination of effects-pedals and punk rock isn’t comparable to Grunge, not even the raw early stuff from before the hype, but there are some shared hard-rock sensibilities in the DNA. It’s just that the Grunge-boys influence was largely overt and direct and Circle Pit’s inspiration is stretched-out and freaked-up. And to be clear, I feel both Angela Bermuda and Jack Mannix are quite skilled musically, it’s just obvious the twosome holds a shared jones for non-polished, un-streamlined roughage. A jones that is refreshingly non-ironic. Instead, BRUISE CONSTELLATION is lovingly tapped into the mainline of unabashed rock love, manifesting and extending the impulsiveness of the adolescent need for sound, a need that caused kids worldwide to rifle through older siblings (and parents) record collections for sustenance and to forego sleep to catch a glimpse of Midnight Special or Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. This knowledge was then put into service in garages and carpeted basements via practice amps and crappy pawn-shop instruments. Combine Ramones, rudimentary blues licks, T. Rex and Nazareth? Sounds suspect if not downright inappropriate, but kids in the sticks have managed to pull it off in the past, and it’s just the sort of wacked-out alchemy these Aussies are reveling in and commenting upon so well right now. Make no mistake; this type of sound is a fleeting one, so it seems totally proper to predict that Circle Pit is ripe for further development. I’m staying tuned.
By the latter half of the 1950s the tide was turning in Thelonious Monk’s favor. Sure, many folks were still playing catch-up ball, but ’56 saw the release of his first big seller BRILLIANT CORNERS (with Sonny Rollins), ’57 found him with a six month residency at New York’s Five Spot, and ’58 saw the first release dedicated entirely to Monk compositions from another artist, Steve Lacy’s excellent REFLECTIONS, to give just three examples of how the man was slowly moving from the fringes of obscurity. That Five Spot engagement featured John Coltrane in a fine quartet that managed a slight bit of recording for the Riverside label, though contractual problems hindered its release until the Jazzland imprint issued THELONIOUS MONK WITH JOHN COLTRANE in 1961. That LP has been expanded upon in the digital era to include additional cuts and alternate takes, but in this case I don’t think the extra padding, while certainly welcome, manages to better the original’s succinct portrait of Monk’s artistic range, and the added stuff actually negates the album’s graspable functionality. The aforementioned Five Spot quartet is the core of this record, featuring mainstays Wilbur Ware on bass and Shadow Wilson on drums tackling three Monk tunes with the rich interaction of a working band. In addition, Coltrane and Ware appear on two cuts as part of a septet that includes heavy hitters such as multi-instrumentalist and composer Gigi Gryce, drum kingpin Art Blakey, underrated trumpeter Ray Copeland and one of the greatest of all saxophonists Coleman Hawkins (this is essentially the band that appeared on the ’57 LP titled MONK’S MUSIC, though Coltrane’s name couldn’t appear on the cover). Bringing the track count to a killer half-dozen is “Functional”, a solo piece originally from the THELONIOUS HIMSELF album. Now, those unfamiliar with this record just might be thinking it’s a bit of a hodge-podge, but let me reemphasize: artistic range. The quartet cuts, particularly the side openers “Ruby, My Dear” and “Nutty”, make it clear that Monk was as adept at leading a long running band as his contemporaries Miles or Mingus, and the septet stuff shows that he could hang in a more studio-bound atmosphere, even one featuring the big-bandish/Benny Golson-like feel that Gryce so often brings to the table. And that solo track, the LP’s closer, finds the pianist disassembling and rebuilding the blues in his own grand image. It’s also indicative of Monk’s slowly changing fortunes that Hawkins, one of his earliest employers and advocates, was invited to join the septet in a distinguished supporting role. Coltrane sounds quite fine here, though finest on the quartet cuts, particularly on “Ruby…”, where his strong tone is already hinting at the tough balladry that would turn up just a couple years later on “Naima”. All the contributors are in fine form, displaying the sort of no-nonsense post-bop professionalism that helped make this era the heyday for mainstream jazz. Of course, Monk was never really of the mainstream, but the effect his compositional greatness had on the heart of jazz culture is simply immeasurable. Indeed, 2005’s THELONIOUS MONK QUARTET WITH JOHN COLTRANE AT CARNEGIE HALL, the commercial issue of unearthed tapes from Thanksgiving 1957, was one of the most important releases of the last decade. And as such, it sorta stole a big batch of the above LP’s thunder. And that’s not really cool for a rather big reason. Specifically, this quartet isn’t that quartet, since Ahmed Abdul-Malik replaces Wilbur Ware on bass. For that matter, was the quartet that started the famous ’57 Five Spot run the same as the one that ended it? Were they even the same quartet night for night, set for set? Not to bring out the heavy guns, but Heraclitus was surely correct regarding stepping in the same river twice: you can’t. So when it comes to a couple of fathoms-deep dudes like Monk and ‘Trane, the idea that one (admittedly masterful) live recording adequately summarizes their collaboration is a fallacy, and for ears not graced by the fruits of that righteous alliance, THELONIOUS MONK WITH JOHN COLTRANE is a great place to start. A person could spend a few lifetimes branching out from there.