September 11, 2008

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Sonny Rollins, Freedom Suites
Concord Music, June 3
Thelonious Monk, Brilliant Corners
Concord Music, March 4

Pretty much the only music I was able to tolerate in my car this summer was jazz, along with a few house comps and an old DMX album when I really wanted to elicit a loud “Oh, come ON!” from my trapped panicking passengers.

I’ve tried pompous, floaty, mystical phrases in the past to describe jazz records, which, as you well know, is what nearly all jazz critics do, preaching to converted insiders. But today is a splendid occasion for strangling metaphor to death: perhaps jazz records are like coffees. For example, Dave Brubeck is like that perfect, just-tasty-enough coffee they serve at decent restaurants, the stuff that comes from industrial-sized cans. The Rollins album, made in 1958 and featuring Max Roach and Oscar Pettiford, is much less straightforward, a little bitter; raw, messy, clunky sax exercises ready for a little adventure, the friendly, sizzling parts rarely hinting at snooty ballrooms. The Monk, recorded a year earlier, is even more brisk, a man’s man’s recording of the legendary pianist that rattles the speakers during the title track when the band — everyone from the Rollins album including Monk protégé Rollins, with Ernie Henry’s sax along to challenge his — bolts a bone-rattling moose call to its core riff. In those fleeting moments it’s as “not for casual listening” as it was billed to be in its original liner notes (included with both CDs in these Keepnews Collection remasters), but history eventually disagreed with that assessment: Brilliant Corners entered the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.

The point, not that I’m compelled to make one, is that albums like these live in Valhalla, beyond critique, where hyperbolic yelps of “Essential!” and the like don’t even do them service anymore. This stuff was and is what “indie” music promised, even if indie music is now a needle-haystack tragedy played out in the marketing department. Sonny Rollins Grade: A+ Thelonious Monk Grade: A+
Eric W. Saeger