Friday, October 23, 2020

A Review of “Something For Pops” (Harold McKinney & Wendell Harrison)

Back in the late ’80s and into the ’90s I wrote for the quarterly Midwest Jazz (originally called The Arts Midwest Jazzletter). These were my first paid writing gigs — indeed, this was the first time it occurred to my that I could make a (little) bit of cash flinging words around on a page.

Because the scope of the journal was the regional jazz scenes within the territory covered by Arts Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin), I’d often come across some really great records that maybe escaped the attention of the national jazz press.

I’m proud of my work there, and I’m collecting some of my articles and reviews from that period here on my jazz blog. Many of the recordings I’m reviewing here are actually more widely available now (via streaming) than they were back when I wrote about them, so you (and I!) have a chance to see if you agree with the know-it-all punk who wrote these reviews back then! 

This article appeared in the
Arts Midwest Jazzletter
Winter 1993/4 (Vol. 12, #1),
an Arts Midwest publication.
Reprinted with permission.

One of my favorite recordings of the ’70s was the Enja label’s Dynamic Duo, featuring George Coleman on tenor and pianist Tete Monotoliu. With no bass or drums to share the musical burden, these two men displayed a solid musical rapport in a sparse setting, playing up the harmonic and melodic aspects of the jazz language while still swinging like hell. It worked because Coleman and Montoliu were enormously talented and very sympathetic to each other, with Montoliu shining as a highly rhythmic and responsive pianist.

The horn-piano duo is a bit of a rarity in jazz recordings, and only a few others come to mind: another release by Coleman a couple of years ago, this time with pianist Richie Beirach; Dave Brubeck & Paul Desmond cut a duet album in the mid-70s; and Frank Morgan regularly tours and records in this format, usually with George Cables. But Something For Pops, a new Detroit release featuring clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Wendell Harrison and pianist Harold McKinney, is for me hands down the most satisfying work I’ve heard in this intimate format.

Without diminishing Harrison’s vital contribution here, I think McKinney shoulders particular responsibility in pulling off this performance. His soloing and sensitive accompaniment display an astonishingly supple and formidable grasp of the wide-open possibilities available to the well-read pianist, evoking such disparate keyboard voices as McCoy Tyner, Bud Powell, Chopin, and Liszt. His “Chromo II,” the solo composition opening this impressive disc, is a sophisticated, harmonically progressive piece nodding equally to Ravel and Debussy and to modern jazz. McKinney’s other originals are the exquisite “Threes And Fours,” fusing boppish and classical elements into an unforgettable musical set piece, and “Stitch In Time,” featuring his expressive (if a little unpolished) baritone voice.

Harrison’s compositions charmingly evoke Louis Armstrong and the New Orleans school. On the sentimental “Rampart Street,” featuring a nice strolling gait, his clarinet surges, bubbles, and teases, tossing off corny quote punch lines to musty jokes you’ve already heard, while McKinney scolds with incongruous whole-tone interjections and peckish phrases. The rapport displayed here is witty and engaging.

“Festivities” and “Sir Oliver” offer McKinney’s modern take on stride accompaniment, citing Fats Waller one moment and Bach the next, beneath Harrison’s fine melodies and soloing. “Pops” is a soulful, well-crafted tune with Harrison’s singing clarinet getting down in a quiet way. He picks up the tenor for the alternately poignant and wild “Armstrong Park”: his opening cadenza starts off high in his clarinetish altissimo register before giving way to a distinctive dark and intense tenor sound.

McKinney’s brother Kiane Zawadi penned “Like, What Is This?,” a bop line fused to the changes of the similarly-titled Cole Porter number, featuring Harrison’s probing clarinet over McKinney’s jabbing cross rhythms. McKinney’s solo is a funky, bluesy, contrapuntal gem.

Something For Pops captures two justly-acknowledged Arts Midwest Jazz Masters from Detroit creating a jazz chamber music epitomizing empathy, communication, and interplay. This disc is as good as it gets.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Yesterday was Monk’s birthday

Yesterday was Monk’s birthday. Every minute of the day, in fact before it even was the actual day, I knew it was Monk’s birthday: late Friday night, toward midnight (NOT “’round midnight”: too corny by a mile) Google Calendar told me that Monk’s birthday was in 10 minutes.

All day long yesterday it was Monk’s birthday, and I knew it. Brushing my teeth, it was Monk’s birthday. Doing dishes: today is Monk’s birthday. Scooping cat litter — my sister introduced me to the Litter Genie (I got the name wrong for about a week, thinking is was Litter Genius), which makes dealing with cat poop less of a pain in the ass, and which every time I use I think ‘wow, some dude had this idea and made it happen,’ which it occurs to me is also the story of Thelonious Monk — anyways, as I was plopping poop into the Litter Genie, I thought about Monk.

I was at the Safeway, and it was Monk’s birthday. I don’t know where anything is at the Safeway. It’s my new grocery store. The green beans looked pretty good. I surveyed the pasta, and was delighted to find DeCecco, superior to the ubiquitous Barilla in my opinion.

Peet’s Coffee, French Roast, Whole Bean. In stock if you look for it, I discovered. (It’s Monk’s birthday, I thought, as I inventoried Safeway’s coffee selection.)

I didn’t like Monk at first. I didn’t think he could play. (Same with Eric Dolphy: I had a 3-LP anthology, “The Saxophone,” with Max Roach’s “Mendacity,” where Dolphy takes a blistering solo. Miles Davis had said of Eric Dolphy, in a blindfold test, that he played like somebody was stepping on his foot — Miles didn’t quite put it that way, but that’s how I’d remembered it — so when I heard Dolphy for the first time on that anthology I thought “Miles was right, it sounds like somebody’s stepping on his foot!”)

I was barely a teenager.

I was alone at the precise moment when I fell in love with Monk’s playing. I was living in my girlfriend’s studio apartment in Minneapolis. (I had an actual “official” roommate, my college pal Doug, in an upstairs duplex in St. Paul where I was paying rent, but I’d moved my stuff to her place and hadn’t seen Doug in months. I wasn’t ready to tell my folks I was serious about a girl, and she and I weren’t ready to specifically identify just what we were doing, which is why I was still paying rent in St. Paul.) She worked nights as a cocktail waitress at a fancy bar in downtown Minneapolis. You wouldn’t believe how much she’d bring home in tips every night.

(Another thing about that shitty studio apartment, in a crummy part of Minneapolis where she’d been mugged once walking out of a bank [she fought with the mugger and actually got one of his shoes — I told her jeezus don’t fight next time]: one time we’d turned on the oven and, as it heated up, leagues of roaches scattered from it in broad daylight, from tiny baby roaches to gigantic Abominations Unto God, and we didn’t use the oven after that. Also, it had a gas fireplace that she’d been told not to use because it didn’t work, but one winter day she tried it when the apartment was too cold and it was fine, and after that we used that illicit fireplace all winter long, making the place so steamy we’d have to open the windows, even in a Minneapolis winter. It was great.)

I had a lot of time to listen to music while waiting for her to get home from the bar, a few hours after midnight. (She’d get home after 2; I’d have to be at work in a downtown music store around 8: I have no idea how I functioned on the amount of sleep I was getting back then, but I found her very compelling and worth the wait, and drank enough coffee at work to seem lucid.)

One evening I turned to Monk. I don’t know exactly what I was listening to when I realized how wrong 13-year-old me had been about him, but it was almost certainly a live recording of the quartet with Charlie Rouse. Monk swung So Fucking Hard, he was so funny, he knew exactly what to play to tighten up his rhythm section or push shit to another level. His playing was beautiful and wise and absurd. Monk played the truth. He astonished me. I bought every damn record of his. I was smitten.

Yesterday, all day, was his birthday, and I knew it. I’ll always know it.

If I stick it out here in Colorado (it’s very beautiful, by the way) someday I’ll probably know where everything is in the Safeway. 

I’m divorcing the woman who was a cocktail waitress 35 years ago. That’s very distracting, but not so distracting that I forgot Monk’s birthday. He’s important to me. He changed my life, changed the way I play, changed the way I write.

I listened to Monk last night, and I thought about the young man I was when I fell in love with him in that shitty studio apartment in Minneapolis. I was transitioning to a new, adult, post-college version of myself when I fell for him back then. 

And once again I’m in transition.

Anyways, I toasted Monk last night with some bourbon and maybe a little weed, because it was his birthday. 

Saturday, October 3, 2020


It took me longer than it should have to catch up with the legendary Chicago tenorman Von Freeman, whose 97th birthday would have today: back when he was first on my radar screen he was dismissed in certain circles of the jazz intelligentsia of the day as an interesting regional player whose “dicey intonation” was an acquired taste.

A few Downbeat reviews along those lines kept me from really checking him out until I was assigned some of his recordings to review for The Jazzletter, a quarterly I wrote for a lifetime or two ago.

Once I’d actually spent some time with his playing, I realized I’d been led astray: yeah, his intonation was unconventional, but it was an integral part of an expressive palette that made him a compelling and beautiful player, a unique tenor voice.

In my review of his Southport record “Walkin’ Tuff,” I laid out what I thought was “the case” for Von Freeman’s intonation and how it fit into his playing.

Here’s the relevant part of that review — this is 20-something me having my ears opened wide and getting some new ideas for my own expressive toolkit by a master:

“The first thing that strikes you about Freeman’s playing is his sound. There’s a cry there that brings to mind fellow Chicagoan Johnny Griffin (Griffin and Freeman and approximately a zillion other phenomenal Chicago jazz musicians studied under the legendary Captain Walter Dyett at DuSable High), along with a depth and darkness that recall Dexter Gordon.

“Freeman, however, sounds derivative of no one; he’s strictly his own man. Nowhere is this more evident than in his very personal intonation. He sometimes plays quite sharp or flat, but I swear, he’s never out of tune! This is best demonstrated in his blues playing, as in the opening phrases of the title tune. His ability to play on or off of expected pitch works perfectly in this context, giving his playing a uniquely expressive vocal quality that I’ve never heard in any other tenor player covering Freeman’s bop territory. (In fact, this pitch freedom, coupled with Freeman's use of dense and complex runs that occasionally go to the very limits of what is rhythmically and harmonically possible within a tonal context, give one a sense of the man as a sort of living link between hard boppers and the free-jazz exponents of the next generation.)”