3 Doubles: Ben Monder, Max Roach, Sun Ra

In my kitchen at home, just by chance, I’ve been listening to 3 double albums. They are Sun Ra- The Singles, Max Roach- To The Max, and Ben Monder- Day by Day. These three double albums each contain a world within them, different from each other but equally perspicuous.

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Sun Ra- The Singles (Evidence, 1996)

Comprised of standards, doo-wop, R&B, original big band and small group jazz, blues, holiday music, chants, jams, spoken word, comedy, electric blues, two songs about Batman, musical theater, electronic dance music, and free improvisations, Sun Ra- The Singles is a double album culled from home recordings, live recordings, and studio recordings over a nearly 30-year period. But instead of feeling unfocused or random, there’s a strong, organic connection between the different sounds, styles, and eras. You might even say Sun Ra was investigating the intersectionality of these styles, on a shoestring budget, starting in 1956.

It’s a sound world that will seem very familiar to 21st century musicians. In fact, listening the other day, it occurred to me that I subconsciously began re-arranging my musical life so that I could encounter all the sounds on this album after I heard it in 2014.

I was working with Stew, the great songwriter, performer, and playwright, on a new musical in Oregon. He would mention Sun Ra as an influence and model nearly every day, it seemed. He’d ask us to do or play some outlandish thing in rehearsal, we’d balk, then he’d tell us that he saw Sun Ra do something like it. Once, he asked me to play violin on a song. I told him I’d never even held a violin, and he said that he’d seen every musician in Sun Ra’s band play drums, there was no way they were all drummers, and can a violin really be so far from a drum?

I’d never thought much of Sun Ra’s music, the little that I heard, but I was curious. One day I asked Stew if there was a Sun Ra record he thought I should hear. He thought for a moment and then replied “The Singles- that’s such a beautiful record.” At Amoeba in San Francisco later that month, I picked it up.

The music is so wide-ranging, and at points so amateurishly played and recorded, that I was confused and then beguiled. In John Szwed’s essential-reading Sun Ra biography, he quotes Sun Ra at a rehearsal circa 1970:

“If you sound like you’re wrong, people will be interested. You don’t ever hear people say ‘let’s go hear that band, they play everything right’. But if you play some things wrong, they say, ‘that band plays wrong, let’s go see them’.”

A shrewd observation. There’s a lot of that on The Singles. But once I adjusted my ear to what Sonny and the band were saying, I had a new friend.

Take the version of “Enlightenment” with Sonny on clavinet, June Tyson on vocals, and John Gilmore on drums and vocals. The singing is out of tune, Gilmore’s drumming is not what his saxophone playing is, and Sonny seems to forget how the song goes at points. It’s recorded in their Philadelphia home, but it doesn’t sound like they were intending to make a single, or even to make music that would be heard more than once. It sounds like a family singing a song they all know and love. It sounds like folk music.

Why was a sub-standard recording of a flawed performance released? I certainly couldn’t say, but one thought I had was that this is what most music sounds like, and this is how most recordings sound. Most music-making is not done by professional musicians, and most people that operate recording gear are not professionals. So here’s an utter commonplace, an everyday, maybe even a vulgar sound. Listening over and over, I discovered the great beauty and dignity in this sound.

I’m not exaggerating to say that after repeated and sustained exposure to Sun Ra and this album in particular, all music now sounds slightly different and better to me

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Max Roach- To The Max! (Blue Moon/Max Roach Productions, 1992)

I like this album because of the pun.

Max Roach occupies a curious spot in the cosmos of many drummers my age. He’s respected and revered, but I’ve heard people say “He doesn’t swing”, “I don’t like his sound”, etc. etc. By “people” I mean mostly white guys, from say 30-45 years old, and most of us never saw him play, and we definitely never hung out with him.

Every great older drummer holds him in the highest regard. I recently spoke to Billy Hart on the phone about Max and he asked how many days I had to talk! Mel Lewis in the Loren Schoenberg radio interviews never shies away from any criticism or praise, but you can hear the fondness in his voice when Schoenberg plays him “Ko-Ko”. “Now that was silky smooth!” says Mel. And so on.

But we- and I mean me- were maybe a little perplexed by Max. I have some of the 80s CD issues of the Clifford Brown albums and his high, bright sound was not well-served by early digital mastering.

A few years ago I began investigating all of Max’s duo encounters- I should try to write about that stuff- Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, and Dollar Brand. I haven’t heard the Connie Crothers duo, and the Clark Terry duet is obviously not Max at his best. (He’d had a stroke and we’re lucky that we could even hear him play at that point.)

Eventually I got very into the video of Max’s band at Blues Alley in 1985, and was curious about the double-CD To The Max! This album was fairly well-distributed, I guess, because I saw it at the New Hartford, NY record stores in the mall in the early 90s. So at another trip to Amoeba, last year, I was finally grown-up enough to get my hands on it.

To The Max! is a summary of everything he’d achieved as a musician. There’s jazz quintet plus choir, jazz quintet plus string quartet, percussion ensemble (M’Boom), jazz quartet, and solo drumset.

Leading off the album is a long, monotonous, hypnotic, dull, and thrilling piece called “Ghost Dance” that seems to be attempting to synthesize Coltrane’s modal language, African Amercian drumming and improvisation, 4/4 swing, gospel music, and Native American imagery and history. The recorded sound is bright and shiny- it really sounds like a CD- and doesn’t serve the piece terribly well. The bass sound is particularly galling. I think it’s a stick bass, one of those standup electric things, no doubt a beautiful instrument at the right time and place, but here mixed so upfront as to be distracting, a further hindrance I’m afraid.

Also, Max seems to have overdubbed a not-terribly-steady cymbal and bass drum playing four quarter notes through the jazz movements, and then mixed them as loud or louder than the horns and voices! With a gospel-style choir of singers chanting “He turned into a moose/he turned into a moose”…. And after the first movement, you hear a bomb detonate.

Yet I give it up for Max, the piece, the band, and the recording. If Bud Powell or Charlie Parker had lived into the 90s, would they have made such uncompromising, challenging music? He’s clearly saying something, though I’m hesitant to say exactly what he’s saying. He’s certainly making connections between cultures and sounds (African American and Native American, drums and voice, modal improvisation and percussion ensemble) that only now are beginning to be (widely) understood.

Max was an influence for all time because he demonstrated with his life that a drummer was a musician and an artist. He showed, in his music and in his career, that jazz was a force for social change- Freedom Now Suite, the duet Dollar Brand, It’s Time, etc. He demonstrated that jazz was a world music, that jazz could travel across the globe and communicate with musicians and listeners of all backgrounds. And he embodied jazz as a single thread of experience, beyond styles, camps, scenes, and mutually-opposed movements. He was a unifier and a teacher. To The Max! is a late-in-life update on the lifelong mission. Check it out.

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Ben Monder- Day After Day (Sunnyside, 2019)

Ben Monder got out front early. His 90s albums with Jim Black still define the modern guitar sound. Prepping for this post I listened to Flux from 1995, and felt lucky to be involved in music.

His latest album is Day After Day, on Sunnyside. Matt Pavolka told me that NPR did a big thing about this album, I saw an article in JazzTimes about it, but going to gigs and talking about records with friends and colleagues, few have heard this album and several didn’t even know it existed. So, I wanted to give it a tiny spotlight.

There’s lots I don’t know. I didn’t know “Day After Day” was a Badfinger song or that it was a huge hit in 1971. (The most I knew about Badfinger was that a Beatle or two signed them to Apple Records in 1969.) I didn’t know Ben was such a serious student of pop music.

Disc one is a quiet, meditative look at songs by Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, three standards (My One and Only Love, Never Let Me Go, and Emily), and a piece by Messiaen, performed solo. Ben seems to be playing his arrangements of these songs. I saw him play most of this music at Ibeam a few weeks ago, and he stopped playing at one point in the middle of a song because he forgot the next part, or something; I certainly couldn’t hear any mistakes or errors, or interrupted flow, or anything like that!

I’m not too surprised to hear a jazz musician play Messiaen, Bacharach, and Mancini, and Ben has truly re-imagined these songs. Check his “Windows Of The World” and hear the news today, oh boy.

On disc 2 the focus shifts. Jimmy Webb and Glenn Campbell, Bread, Fleetwood Mac, the Carpenters, “Goldfinger” and Badfinger are not typical choices for improvising instrumentalists.

I was surprised by these song choices. Bravo for 70s AM radio! Or was it FM by this time? There was more beauty there then I knew. (Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden playing “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”.)

Matt Brewer and Ted Poor join on bass and drums, and I noticed that they seem to play a supportive role. It put me in mind of Leo Kotke, the “Wrecking Crew” sound of LA in the 60s, Allan Holdsworth, Joe Satriani; basically the long tradition of guitar trios where the focus is on supporting the guitarist and the composition, instead of engaging in three-way conversation and simultaneous improvisation (which, to be sure, they sometimes do, or at least imply).

I like how Ben lets the music speak. Even at his most outgoing- like the quasi-metal sound of “Goldfinger”- there is a quietness, a stillness to his music. He seems to embody a contemporary trend away from outsized egos and macho megalomaniacs who dominate their musicians and audiences with their creative and destructive charisma- the tradition Sun Ra and Max Roach were coming from. This is inward looking music, maybe even autobiographical. But it’s not solipsistic, narcissistic, or ego-driven. It’s meditative, quiet, beautiful, wholistic, and inspiring.

Max Roach put the world on a drumset. Sun Ra said the jazz big band WAS the world. Ben Monder shares what he sees in the world through the guitar. For some reason the double album format fits these dissimilar artists well. Maybe they’re not dissimilar.

Onward and upward!