Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon
Reviewed by Harvey Pekar, Fri., June 21, 2002
Thelonious MonkStraight No Chaser (Columbia/Legacy)
Charlie ParkerBird (Columbia/Legacy)
Dexter GordonRound Midnight (Columbia/Legacy) Soundtracks, we got jazz soundtracks here. Straight No Chaser comes from Charlotte Zwerin's 1986 documentary of pianist Thelonious Monk and features Monk in various 1956-68 live and studio sessions. He's heard in settings ranging from unaccompanied to octet. Not Monk's most important recording by a long shot, but it's still mighty good. He ranks, after all, among the most important few dozen jazzmen of all time. Note how rhythmically interesting Monk's solos are; swinging wasn't a be-all, end-all with him. He had fresh rhythmic ideas and avoided a lot of the syncopated phrases many jazzmen employed to swing in the 1940s and 1950s. Among the other highlights on the disc are excellent tenor sax solos by John Coltrane, Charlie Rouse, and Johnny Griffin. None other than Herbie Hancock was the musical director on Bernard Tavernier's feature film Round Midnight (1986), which is loosely based on the lives of jazz titans Bud Powell and Lester Young. The basic group here, a trio, consists of pianist Hancock, bassist Pierre Michelot or Ron Carter, and either drummer Billy Higgins or Tony Williams. The film's star, Dexter Gordon, is featured prominently on tenor sax. Others making appearances include Bobby McFerrin, Chet Baker, John McLaughlin, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, and Bobby Hutcherson. With all those good people you're bound to have good music, but still, the results disappoint. The selections function to support the action on the screen, and stylistically, they're anonymous. In other words, Tavernier went out of his way to hire a bunch of great artists, but didn't take advantage of their unique skills. The stuff from the Bird soundtrack represents, we're informed, a breakthrough in recording technology, which unfortunately, doesn't enhance the music. Parker's solos were lifted from the original tracks and re-recorded with contemporary musicians for Clint Eastwood's 1988 biopic. You'd think at least that the movie producers would choose the finest Charlie Parker on record, but often they don't; by Bird's standards, this stuff is just so-so. The music that's added to the Parker spots is nothing special either. Music director Lennie Niehaus' writing for strings, for example, is corny. And the balance between old and new isn't done that smoothly; sometimes the piano comes through too heavily. If you get the idea that little about this soundtrack came off as well as advertised, you're right.