Friday, March 2, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 3/2/12 - Nation of Ulysses and Thelonious Monk

Big recent news has it that The Make*Up are reuniting for some live shows around the estimable All Tomorrow’s Parties series, and for folks that never had the chance to see them, that’s a golden opportunity to experience one of the more dynamic live acts to splat out of the ‘90s indie scene. Take it from me, for I witnessed their glorious spectacle on numerous occasions in clubs, art galleries and even a sushi-bar basement during their prolific and too-brief period of neo-mod/freakbeat/R&B motion.
For many The Make*Up = Ian Svenonius. That’s not a bit accurate, but in the case of a front-man/vocalist this galvanizing, it’s also not a bit surprising. And it’s an impulse that’s largely came about due to the guy’s rather brilliant (if divisive by intention) transformation into a musically shrewd performer as social commentator as writer as indie-media personality. But as any fan of Svenonius will tell you, this wasn’t always the case.
As evidence please consider the vigorously conceptual post-harDCore troupe Nation of Ulysses. It might strain the britches of some of Ian’s strident non-fans to hear it, but I (after much consideration) believe the NoU are amongst the top half dozen Dischord acts in the labels considerable history (the others, since you asked and in chronological order, are Minor Threat, Void, Rites of Spring, Fugazi, and Lungfish). To put a fine point on it, not only was the Nation a real breath of fresh air in purely Dischordian terms, but they also helped in providing a sweet alternative to the waves of T-shirt clad regular-guy indie noise rockers that were so dominant (as to become almost oppressive) in the moments just before grunge blew the lid off of the scene.
Indeed, a big part of the Nation’s concept (as well as Svenonius’ modus operandi as a whole) was to pull the rug out from underneath the error of equating the beatific properties of DIY with the under-the-radar rumblings of Joe-average schmoes. And the perceived arrogance of a bunch of (some would say entitled) kids playing dress-up and approximating the persona of elitist revolutionaries got under the skin of more than just those perched to despise anything not cloaked in a blanket of earnest self-deprecation. Even lynchpin Dischord engineer Don Zientara described the NoU as acting like real “prima-donnas” in the studio.
But that’s something I always dug about Nation of Ulysses (and Ian’s attitude in general); they really popped the balloon of expectations over u-ground rock musicians needing to be humble and approachable and just like you and me. They also took very seriously that they were performing (and by extension what they were performing), which obviously didn’t sit well with those who’ve misunderstood the wisdom to be gleaned from punk.
Specifically, much has been made of Minutemen’s working-class punk ethos, but what many people either don’t understand or simply ignore is that Watt Boon and Hurley were on stages playing music and delivering a show that the vast majority of their audiences couldn’t have replicated. When they said “Our band could be your life” in “History Lesson” it didn’t mean that the listener should be satisfied with their status as a self-effacing consumer or audience member or fan; it was intended to inspire self-improvement and the unrealized potential to be something other than just another anonymous prole.
And in my mind Nation of Ulysses (that’s Ian S, Steve Kroner, Tim Green, Steve Gamboa, and James Canty) is one of the last bands to be legitimately touched by the fall-out from the original punk wave. For instance, they provided a commentary upon the increasing emptiness of punk’s political grounding not by lampooning it but by complicating the subject matter far beyond the comfort zone of those satisfied with simply shouting slogans. The band’s militant-group guise (kinda unthinkable post-9/11) and deliberately obscure rhetoric has been derided by some as shtick, but I tend toward the kinder description of theatre. Shtick is something relatively easy to convey. Jokesters love shtick, but what NoU was conveying was the best type of comedy, one of profound seriousness. Theatre, if done well anyway, requires dedication and imagination.
And the Nation had both in spades. In my estimation, the best document of their abilities is their second and final full-length Plays Pretty For Baby. While both of the band’s 7-inch records are stone gassers of youthful ambition and bombastic punk execution, Plays Pretty was a marked improvement over the already quite impressive debut LP 13-Point Program to Destroy America. Where that record was full of unleashed post-HC fury and loaded with excellent songs, its follow-up distilled these elements with the precision of a group that thrived in the lived setting.
It also diversified their sonic template with unexpected forays into jazz (or more appropriately “jazz-like”) territory. These moments shouldn’t have been surprising considering NoU’s employment of trumpet as an aid for sonic disruption, but they still managed to raise the eyebrows of many with their sheer dedication to approximating a bunch of energy and intellect drenched kids intoxicated on the uncut spirits of prime ‘60s Impulse recordings. And this jazz love fit right in to the Nation’s conceptual ballgame. For if blues and folk are the wood-shedding material of the humble rocker then jazz is the true weapon of any young revolutionary. Just ask John Sinclair.
And that leads me to a nice observation. At their best (which was often) Nation of Ulysses sorta came off like the MC5 if they’d exploded not from the ‘60s Motor City but from underneath the floorboards of the just post-Revolution Summer Dischord House. It’s not the sound but the presentation; Plays Pretty For Baby opens with a brief bit of loosely delivered spoken-word ambiance that, while distinct from Rob Tyner’s rousing intros on "Kick Out the Jams", still manages to convey complimentary intent. If the MC5 were (only briefly) the personification of a ‘60s youth movement that possessed the interest in politics and social issues but sadly lacked long-term commitment, the Nation of Ulysses were the righteous dissenters in a early ‘90s u-ground scene populated by so many folks willing to throw their ideals out the window once the post-Nevermind floodgates opened.
It’s great that the NoU’s ideological concepts are so thick and tasty, but like Tyner, Wayne Kramer and company (Michael Davis RIP), what matters in the end is the music; listening again to Plays Pretty For Baby it’s clear that music will carry the day.

Once upon a time, Thelonious Sphere Monk was considered too esoteric for mass consumption. These days the man is as deep in the jazz pantheon as it gets, but it should be stated that most of the tribute recordings that I’ve heard outside of the late great Steve Lacy (a sax man!!) register as safe and uninspiring. To the point, they miss what makes Monk so vital and contemporary, instead flattening his music (and not just the songs but most importantly the man’s undyingly brilliant playing) into a museum worthy atmosphere (no hostility toward museums, but Monk’s achievements sprung from the far different locus of the bandstand) that while not necessarily sterile still deflates the songs, from conception to delivery, into shadows of what they were in the hands of the master over fifty years ago.
Back in ’55, Riverside producer Orrin Keepnews understood what made Thelonious Monk such an amazing and sui generis figure. Indeed, the title of his second record for Riverside is appropriately titled The Unique Thelonious Monk. But at this early stage Keepnews also understood that many ears were still resistant to the man’s unimpeachable greatness, with some dissenters dismissing him as a flake and others even damning him as non-musical. Those that valued the (to my ear) vastly overrated “flying-fingers” approach of Oscar Pederson were likely to backhand Monk as annoyingly eccentric at best. It wasn’t really until the early ‘60s, after free jazz had tore the roof off the house of post-bop, that Monk started attaining something like mainstream acceptance, getting his beautiful mug on the cover of Time  Magazine and scoring that late-career recording contract with Columbia Records.
So knowing what he was up against, Keepnews decided it would be best to have Monk initially abstain from recording his own compositions; instead, he would interpret standards, a tactic that gave the skeptical some solid footing in grappling with the new conceptions of Monk’s style. In fact his first Riverside release was also a covers only affair, the essential Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington. If this all sounds like compromise…well, yeah. But it wasn’t a bad strategy. You see, Monk’s whole thing, while gesturing at times toward European models, was very much a straight-up expansion on the jazz aesthetic. It’s just that he was one of the great musical modernists, and groundbreakers of this stripe are rarely rewarded with acceptance from the jump.
Standards had been tackled by jazzmen for a long while before Monk first sat in with his bebop cohorts at Minton’s Playhouse. But the tradition of standards was largely one of homage, of reinvention, of crowd-pleasing, of personal indulgence. In the case of Monk’s early work for Riverside it was a different affair, a gesture of sincerity hopeful of meeting a wider potential audience halfway. And again, because the man’s greatness is as much about playing as it is composition, this meet-in-the-middle proposition worked wonderfully as a document of pure musical expression.
But this framing of The Unique Thelonious Monk is frankly not the best way to engage with the music in the here and now. It’s certainly historically important for contextualization, but it’s also a flat fact that anybody at this late date continuing to pontificate objections over Monk’s work is simply the worst kind of moldy, dehydrated fig. The pendulum has indeed swung in the other direction, with folks that possess far too much disposable income feeling the need to get gussied up in tuxes and gowns to sit and watch and politely applaud as talented but imaginatively compromised individuals mummify Monk’s legacy. But there is another angle in which to consider The Unique, and it has to do with the ever present and often problematic mode of expression known as the piano trio.
Now there has been a seriously considerable amount of great piano trio recordings, so many in fact that I’ll probably go to my deathbed without getting to hear them all. But these studies in baseline rhythmic improvisation are very often unapologetic exercises in form-for-form’s sake (which is cool in itself) lacking in the breath-force provided by horn players that also frequently tackle the well-worn melodiousness of standards. This makes them not only acceptable listening on hung-over mornings but also in coffee shops, in upscale restaurants and in nursing homes. And that’s alright. But due to their broad agreeability the goddamn records of these triangular endeavors have a tendency to multiply like rabbits nourished on nothing but high-vitamin carrots and uncut Spanish Fly.
And there is also the issue of the piano-trio’s inherent suitability as a soundtrack for cocktail shenanigans. Part of this stems from how the non-horned conception of keys, bass and drums has long been the preferred backdrop for the supper-clubby environs of the jazz vocalist. To be frank, the tradition of the singer has always been one of my least favorite elements of the great big bag of jazz. Sure, Billie’s beautiful, and I dig Ella and King Pleasure and Anita O’Day and Johnny Hartman and Helen Merrill and Betty Carter (to say nothing of sweet disruptors like Patty Waters, Linda Sharrock and Jeanne Lee), but the fact remains that one big reason I got into jazz in the first place was to escape the harsh domineering of the vocalist in modern music. The jazz singer far too often feels like a gesture toward (and in a contemporary setting reminder of) jazz’s (long-gone) commercial heyday. And the piano trio can very often fall into this same zone, almost seeming to strive for the aural wallpaper status appropriate for sipping overpriced mixed-drinks.
Some of this seems to stem from the simple misinterpretation of Bill Evans’ amazing Village Vanguard recordings with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. But a much bigger part of it is due to the very nature of the piano. The instrument’s 88 keys offer unparalleled possibilities in relation to notes and chords, but this opportunity is also stubbornly resistant to offering avenues outside a range of comfortable familiarity. That’s why the piano was resistant for so long to the full-fledged excursions of free-jazz (outside of Cecil Taylor, of course). It’s why Ornette Coleman eschewed the keyboard for so long, and it’s why avant-classical composer John Cage jumped headfirst into prepared piano in expending the pinetop’s sonic possibilities. And it’s also part of why Monk had such an initial rough time.
The Unique Thelonious Monk presents the man in tandem with bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Art Blakey. It’s a grandly executed set of seven standards, and it belongs in any serious library of the jazz form. It finds Monk approaching the songs with sensitivity without losing any of the qualities that make his music such a thrilling gift to this day. Pettiford and Blakey come to the music not as pros (which they of course were) but as fully engaged coconspirators, aiding the proceedings with rare knowledge and grace. It’s a short set, but in this age of marathon CD sessions, that’s a plus. The trio sets up, digs in, gets down to it and leaves the ears in a state of sublime appreciation. All that’s left is to reflect or play the record again.
Along with his earlier date for Prestige (The Thelonious Monk Trio), The Unique Thelonious Monk shares space with other magnificent studies in piano trio form from such august names as Bud Powell (The Amazing Bud Powell Vol. 2), Sonny Clark (The Sonny Clark Trio), Herbie Nichols (Complete Blue Note Recordings), Tommy Flanagan (Overseas), Phineas Newborn (The Great Jazz Piano), Mal Waldron (Mal 4: Trio), Duke Ellington (Money Jungle), Chick Corea (Now He Sings, Now He Sobs), Keith Jarrett (Morning of a Star), Andrew Hill (Nefertiti & Strange Serenade) and of course Bill Evans (do yourself a big solid and invest in The Complete Live at The Village Vanguard 1961).

Unlike Jarrett, Waldron and Evans, Monk rarely recorded in the trio format (I’m unfamiliar with any authorized releases post-Unique), so that’s another factor in this record’s favor. But the biggest is that even when working in a mode of least resistance in hopes of gaining new listeners, Monk still sounds incomparable. That’s the thing his legions of copyists still don’t understand; in order to really be like Monk you have to be yourself.