Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I don't often post stories from NPR's All Things Considered, but listening to the show Tuesday afternoon I was wowed by a couple of items about a couple of slightly bizarre performers I like from the mid twentieth century.

Check it out.

In A New Biography, Monk Minus The Myth

She also gave her son rare recordings of Monk playing that had not been heard outside the family. Kelley calls them "just incredible gems."

"And what I heard particularly in this wonderful recording of him dealing with the song 'I'm Getting Sentimental Over You,' " Kelley says, "you hear him first try to assimilate the song, understand its dimensions. And he's playing a passage over and over again. And it sounds like somebody who doesn't know the song, though you know he does.

"And he works through it. And after about, really, 45 minutes of working through this, as if he's struggling, he suddenly gets his stride. And he obtains a kind of mastery of the song. And if there's any lesson in those tapes, it's that it was hard for Monk to play Monk."

here to listen to the story.

They play a bit of that practice tape in the NPR piece, and its exactly as described here: Monk sort of losing himself in the composition, trying to figure out it's hidden mysteries, looking to translate it into his own musical idiom. I've never been a huge Thelonious Monk fan, but I've liked him since I first encountered him in a jazz appreciation class I took back in the 80s. Our professor briefly explained why Monk sounds so weird: there are all kinds of chord variations where the pianist adds or subtracts a few notes here and there to turn, say, a C major chord into, say, a C minor diminished seventh; usually, the added notes are spread out across the keyboard, giving the chord a harmonious feel, but Monk would sandwich these notes together, literally on top of one another, so it all works musically, but has a sort of off-kilter feel. Listening to Monk is way cool, but it's also kind of WTF, in a good way. Excellent weird jazz.

Remembering Spike Jones And His City Slickers

Spike Jones and his City Slickers broke the mold of conventional music decades ago with humor, drums, cowbells and even cannons. With his 1950s TV show now on DVD, the late bandleader's wife, Helen Grayco, and son, Spike Jones Jr., talk about his legacy of subverted songs.

Listen to the story

As with Thelonious Monk, I've never been a big Spike Jones fan, but I've definitely noticed him. Really, it was about humor, which, as a long time Frank Zappa fan, I greatly appreciate. Jones used lots of non-musical instruments and sounds juxtaposed against a more standard approach in order to confound expectations--it's much more than the funny lyrical approach used by Weird Al Yankovic and his ilk. Indeed, it might be fair to say that Jones paved the way for the likes of Zappa and others: you probably couldn't have the Beatles doing something like "Yellow Submarine" if you didn't have Jones doing his weird stuff a decade earlier.

Actually, I think I remember reading something some years ago about Beatles producer George Martin having worked with Jones before he met the Fab Four, making Martin the perfect guy for John, Paul, George, and Ringo's free-wheeling and experimental approach to pop and rock music. If that's true, we've got a lot more to thank Jones for than just his funny records.