Monday, June 20, 2011
Heiner Stadler’s Tribute to Bird and Monk
Tribute to Bird & Monk
By Stuart Broomer
I’ll confess to not recognizing the name of Heiner Stadler when this reissue of a two-LP set from 1978 arrived, and I’m not sure Tribute to Bird and Monk (originally on Tomato, it’s now on Labor Records, LAB 7074) would have caught my eye back then. I have certain engrained prejudices against tribute records by musicians who are unknown to me—so much of it just feels like false advertising. But a look at the personnel here was enough to make me interested.
The basic group is a sextet, its members chosen with rare taste for both skill and inventiveness: Thad Jones on cornet; George Lewis, trombone; George Adams, tenor saxophone and flute; Stanley Cowell, piano; Reggie Workman, bass; Lenny White, drums. Cecil Bridgewater is listed as a special guest, though he replaces Jones on a single track; Warren Smith adds tympani on two tracks.
It’s a surprising group, with many of the members having credentials in both mainstream jazz and the avant-garde, like Jones, known then for his Basie association and his own big band, but a surprisingly outside improviser when presented with the opportunity in Sonny Rollins’ 1963 quartet; or Lewis, then associated with Anthony Braxton but with a season in the Basie band behind him as well. That kind of mixed background extends to everyone in the group, perhaps most notably Adams, whose proto post-modern solos could regularly bounce amongst suave bop, bar-walking gutbucket and “new- thing” effusions.
There are, I think, all sorts of reasons why recording sessions put together and led by arrangers –“concept” records especially--shouldn’t work, whether it’s the auteur’s distance from spontaneity or the creative indifference of session players, but occasionally a CD in this category can be transformative. This is one of them.
Stadler arranged three tunes by Charlie Parker and three by Thelonious Monk, and he approached them in a way that makes them touch on the whole spectrum of jazz and certain key issues in its making. It included a radical rethinking and reapplication of New Orleans polyphony, often focusing collective improvisation around the composed melodic materials of Parker and Monk. This polyphony is often set within a broad tonal language that expands towards free jazz, mixing dissonant collisions and freedom of choice with the original harmonic content of Parker and Monk’s musics.
In addition to its own power, Stadler’s writing draws us across jazz history, so that we’re listening to it all at once, though specifically from the compositional (formal and harmonic) perspective of Parker and Monk. It’s a radical view in that it treats jazz as a range of possibilities rather than as a specific and progressive sequence of styles (in this sense, it’s oddly akin to the contemporaneous European band the Anachronic Jazz Band, which performed repertoire by Parker, Monk, and Coltrane in the style of traditional jazz ). The result is dense, lively and sometimes manic, and the lines between composition, “arrangement,” and improvisation blur into continuously dynamic music.
Robert Palmer’s original liner notes provide precise descriptions of Stadler’s scores, from describing the elaborate deconstruction of “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are” (including Stanley Cowell’s piano solo accompanied by the three horns playing a transcription of Monk’s original piano solo), to the kinds of verbal directions for solos that arise throughout the charts, like this for Lewis’s trombone feature on Parker’s “Au Privave”: “Play in approximately half tempo but never precisely. Play either slower or faster and combine the different half tempo levels by means of ritardandos and accelerandos: short excursions into the original medium fast tempo should be played throughout your solo.”
Here Stadler is effectively developing the improvisational content, dictating the strangely arrhythmic component while liberating note choice. Elsewhere there are directions about lengths of freely improvised interludes, keeping them short to prevent the loss of melody, Stadler keenly aware that melody was always Monk’s sculptural material. He also understands the special abilities of his performers, so that the compositional language is perfectly compatible with many of the individual musicians’ best work. It’s a near-ideal mix of personalities and there’s a definite sense of reciproity. It sounds like everyone in the group found Stadler’s methods a stimulating challenge, a genuinely different approach to familiar material.
In an era when so much music has been reissued, including work of marginal quality, it’s a surprise to encounter something this good for the first time. There’s a certain painful irony to that as well, for Stadler is not just revising Parker and Monk’s music: he’s paying tribute to its genuinely radical spirit, finding openings in it that will admit and expand the spectrum of jazz practice. Tribute to Bird and Monk is a visionary view of bop in its revolutionary glory that appeared just before the arrival of neo-conservatism in jazz, the very force that would make work like Stadler’s invisible, while sapping bop of its historical dynamism and meaning.
Stadler’s Tribute to Bird and Monk belongs with a very select group of recordings. It can be included in a special category of major works neglected specifically because they were put together by composer/ arrangers who weren’t widely known. Examples include A.K. Salim’s Afro-Soul Drum Orgy (Prestige), for which Salim assembled a band of Johnny Coles, Yusef Lateef, Pat Patrick and around a half-dozen percussionists from Africa and the Caribbean and worked out a few phrases of a few bars each. Another relatively unsung masterpiece is John Benson Brooks’ Alabama Concerto (Riverside), based on Alabama folk songs and played by a superb quartet with Cannonball Adderley, Art Farmer, Barry Galbraith and Milt Hinton. Brooks’ Concerto simultaneously fuses jazz with folk sources and classical form and it does so with an unlikely ease and naturalness.
Stadler’s Tribute also has strong affinities with some highly individualistic and brilliant treatments of the jazz pantheon: with George Russell’s arrangement of Monk’s “Round Midnight” (on Ezz-thetics on Riverside with Eric Dolphy and an assortment of sound effects that include piano interior); with Misha Mengelberg’s “Ellington Mix,” a medley of deconstructed Duke tunes (on the ICP’s Bospaadje Kinjnehol I on their eponymous label); and also with Anthony Braxton’s Charlie Parker Project (HatHut).
George Lewis may have been inspired by his work with Stadler when he created his own tribute to BIrd. Lewis debuted his Homage to Charlie Parker—sans actual Parker material--at the 1978 AACM
Festival in Chicago, recording it for Black Saint the next year.