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The Thrills and Frustrations of a Rediscovered Thelonious Monk Recording

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“Palo Alto,” a new release of a previously unissued concert recording of Thelonious Monk and his quartet, from 1968, embodies some of the vexing paradoxes of his majestic artistry and his radically influential career. The album, scheduled for release in July from Impulse Records, was delayed, reportedly owing to contractual issues; it will now be released on September 18th, on CD and vinyl by Impulse and digitally by Sony Legacy. Monk, a pianist and composer, was fifty-one at the time of the concert. He was one of the prime creators—the creator, he said—of modern jazz, i.e., bebop, alongside Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, in the early nineteen-forties, most famously at jam sessions at a Harlem club called Minton’s. Yet, while those musicians also had jobs with famous big bands, Monk—the house pianist at Minton’s—was composing, theorizing, and mentoring. Those musicians, and others in their circle, recorded copiously, starting in 1945, but Monk’s recorded output remained scant until the nineteen-fifties. Though musicians had long been aware of his powerfully original ideas and performances, it wasn’t until a 1957 gig, at the Five Spot, in the East Village—where his main sideman was the saxophonist John Coltrane—that his central place in modern artistic life became widely acknowledged.

Some reasons are bitterly practical and political. New York had a law at the time requiring club musicians to hold a police-issued “cabaret card,” which some, including Monk, lost after drug convictions (one for marijuana, another when he was wrongly charged), resulting in Monk being barred from jazz clubs for many years. (Another arrest, in 1958, after from his ejection from a hotel lobby in Jim Crow-enforcing Delaware, led to yet another suspension from club dates.) At the same time, Monk endured the widespread rejection of critics and audiences, who long failed to recognize his greatness, whether in public performances or on records, even as his peers from Minton’s were widely acclaimed. Whereas Parker, Gillespie, and the pianist Bud Powell were conspicuously virtuosic, their solos thrillingly outpacing lesser artists both in invention and execution, Monk, though no less skilled on his instrument, had a different way of showing it. He traded speed for space, which he punctuated with percussive, angular figures that matched their distinctive harmonic complexity (and, sometimes, harmonic starkness) with extraordinary micro-timing and a variety of attacks. His style was no less difficult to achieve than those of his peers, but its brilliance was less evident even to ostensible cognoscenti. As a result, his recordings were slower to come along—and, when they did, critics (which is to say, white critics) were even slower to appreciate them as more than merely idiosyncratic and eccentric. Musicians, nonetheless, knew all along that he was a decisive creator of musical forms; Teddy Hill, a bandleader who managed Minton’s, said, “Monk seemed more like the guy who manufactured the product rather than commercialized it.”

Monk’s peers in modern music, such as Parker, Gillespie, and Powell—who, as a teen-ager, studied with Monk—also composed, and their compositions quickly became widely performed by other musicians. But Monk is likely one of the two most important composers of jazz, second only to Duke Ellington. What’s more, his own compositions were the basis for most of his recordings and concerts. He rarely recorded compositions by other jazz musicians, with the exception of Ellington; he delved only secondarily into the Great American Songbook. In his compositions, as in his improvisations, he dealt himself severe limits, distilling and fragmenting his own melodies, each time differently, often picking up on phrases from the preceding (usually saxophone) soloist. Within this framework, the liberating force of inspiration was ecstatic—yet the danger of narrowness lurked.

In 1957, Monk’s quartet with Coltrane (who’d been fired from Miles Davis’s quintet because of his heroin addiction, which he was struggling to kick) held a six-month residency at the Five Spot. A visit to the club to see them play became de rigueur for New York artists and intellectuals. (Robin D. G. Kelley tells the story, in fascinating detail, in his essential and extraordinary biography of Monk.) In an odd and depressing way, though, Monk was a victim of his own success, modest and belated though it may have been. Monk’s new acclaim enabled him to form a working quartet, but Coltrane returned to Miles Davis’s group, in 1958; Monk hired the saxophonist Charlie Rouse, who was a fine musician, with the skill to negotiate Monk’s terse but complicated compositions and the imagination to reëxplore them nightly, but he wasn’t an original soloist at a level to challenge Monk. As Monk grew popular, he and the quartet spent much of the year touring. This left him, he said, with little time or energy to compose; from the late fifties on, Kelley estimates, Monk worked with a core repertory of only “about fifteen to twenty” pieces. In 1962, Monk signed a contract with Columbia Records that provided both financial stability and publicity. In 1964, he made the cover of Time—at exactly a moment when a new generation of avant-garde musicians, such as Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and the ever-advancing Coltrane himself, made Monk seem like a holdover from the previous revolution.

Throughout the sixties, Monk concerts (many of which were often recorded unofficially, as in the case of the Palo Alto gig) more or less followed the same format, and their quality is mainly in the extent of Monk’s and Rouse’s degree of inspiration on the given day. (My favorite Monk recording of this quartet is from a European concert tour, in 1969, when he brought along a seventeen-year-old New York drummer named Paris Wright, who, through innocence or bravado, uninhibitedly challenged Monk on the bandstand, stoking Monk’s creative fires to a high blaze.) The Palo Alto concert doesn’t reach such heights, but it offers its own distinctive and illuminating pleasures. The story behind its very existence (which Kelley tells in the Monk biography and expands on in liner notes for the album) is remarkable: it was organized by Danny Scher, a sixteen-year-old senior at Palo Alto High School and a white jazz fan, who held the concert as a fund-raiser for his school’s International Club, and whose promotion of it in the predominantly Black neighborhood of East Palo Alto apparently played a role in easing tensions between the communities. The recording is only forty-seven minutes long, featuring six pieces. The band was staying in San Francisco and had to rush back there for a club date that night; Scher’s older brother borrowed the family van to pick them up and drive them back.

Rouse and the drummer, Ben Riley, launch into the opening number, Monk’s ballad “Ruby, My Dear,” at an unusually bouncy tempo, and Monk makes his entry in double time, soloing with a sense of voluble relaxation. He kicks off the second, up-tempo piece, “Well, You Needn’t,” energetically, and, after Rouse’s vigorous solo, Monk winks at his final phrases before revisiting the melody and spinning off from it in long, whirling phrases, which he then takes apart and rebuilds as hypnotic fragments. Monk pares the legato theme of “Don’t Blame Me,” the third track, to gaunt melodic stalagmites, linked by the deep reverberations of his startling bass line, and resolves to a jaunty, sped-up, stride-like, glitteringly percussive development. “Blue Monk” starts with Monk remaining in the same stride-piano vein; after Rouse’s solo, Monk returns with drolly fragmented countermelody and continues with mercurial, polyrhythmic skitters up the keyboard, dissolving to a series of driving, funky chords strutting down the keyboard with an exuberant heft.

By the time this recording was made, many of the musicians closest to Monk—Davis, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins—had changed their playing significantly, moving ahead into the wilder waters of jazz modernity. Monk spoke ill of the avant-garde. He didn’t perform with its luminaries (there were one or two brief, belated, unrecorded exceptions), and he didn’t seek much contact with the new generation of vastly accomplished musicians who were making their mark in bop-rooted styles. It’s hard to know whether his taste congealed or whether his belated success prompted him to stay the course until he fell out of fashion. Also, in the mid-sixties, he began to endure the exacerbated effects of bipolar disorder, and his behavior became increasingly erratic. His activity dwindled in the nineteen-seventies; he gave his final concerts in 1976 (I was at the second to last) and died, of a stroke, in 1982. Yet his artistry is woven into the very core of jazz history. His compositions continue to be widely played—and their performance has a strange, singular, and powerful effect. Their ideas and, for that matter, their melodies are inseparable from his unique, utterly and instantly distinctive way of playing the piano—they seemingly transmit his very presence. Monk doesn’t just influence modern jazz; he inhabits it. His music is the virtual gene-splicer of modern jazz.

My Five Essential Monk Albums

1. “The Best of Thelonious Monk,” selected Blue Note recordings, 1947–1952

2. “Piano Solo,” Paris, 1954

3. “The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings,” with John Coltrane / “Monk’s Music,” 1957

4. “Live at the Jazz Workshop,” 1964

5. “Paris 1969,” live from Salle Pleyel, Paris, France, 1969

(And my single exemplary Monk track, as a sideman: Miles Davis’s “Bags’ Groove (Take 1),” from “Bags’ Groove,” 1954.)

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It’s Nearly Election Time—So Let’s Roast Trump in Rhyme

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John Lithgow knows that poems will not defeat Donald Trump, no matter how cleverly penned. 

What the actor hopes is that his collection of Trumpty Dumpty rhymes and storybook illustrations provides a laugh, some schadenfreude, and a bit of relief and reassurance to those who are doing all they can to fight the good fight as the November 3 election draws near.

“I’m an entertainer,” Lithgow said. “What else am I going to do except somehow entertain while I express, deep down, my anger and loathing at what’s going on right now?”

The book, the  full title of which is Trumpty Dumpty Wanted a Crown: Verses for a Despotic Age, hits stores on Tuesday. In the meantime, Lithgow recruited actor friends (and a few political figures) to read some of the poems aloud.

Vanity Fair presents four of the readings here, with performers including Meryl Streep, Samuel L. Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Glenn Close, Steve Buscemi, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Trumpty Dumpty

Lithgow came up with the idea for the videos himself. “Here we are in the COVID era, where you can’t have a proper book tour. What’s the best bang for your buck when you can’t leave your office or your living room? I thought, I’ll just get friends of mine to film themselves,” he said. “I mean, all of us are being asked to do all sorts of things, just sitting and staring at your own iPhone. I think I must’ve done 40 little testimonials and tributes—even plays just right here in my house.”

The shoots were overseen by Emmy-winning Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos director Tim Van Patten, who had recently worked with Lithgow on HBO’s Perry Mason. They both shared a love for one of the founding fathers of political cartoons, who popularized the form in the late 1800s. “He’s a huge Thomas Nast fan,” Lithgow said of Van Patten. “So he, in fact, was thrilled with my political cartoons, and he said yes immediately.”

The Tiger King

Among the people Lithgow recruited were Montana senator Jon Tester, Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, and Democratic campaign adviser James Carville. Van Patten and his team cut the footage together and added the animation for a dash of playfulness.

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Henry Cavill Finds Playing Superman & Geralt More Stressful Than Sherlock

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Henry Cavill is no stranger to playing iconic characters, but it turns out he found one to be less stressful than the others: Sherlock Holmes.

Henry Cavill finds playing Sherlock Holmes to be much less stressful than Superman or Geralt of Rivia. Cavill rose to fame when he was cast as the DCEU’s Superman for 2013’s Man of Steel. Though the film was met with a mixed response, fans grew to appreciate Cavill’s performance as Clark Kent over the course of additional films like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. Since then, though, Cavill’s DCEU future has remained a large question mark. Luckily, the actor found another memorable role to take on in the meantime, portraying monster hunter Geralt for Netflix’s The Witcher.

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Cavill’s newest role just so happens to be as well-known as Superman himself: Sherlock Holmes. For Netflix’s Enola Holmes, Cavill is the latest actor to play the iconic detective, though the film is actually centered on his brilliant younger sister (Millie Bobby Brown). As this Sherlock is a bit different than ones that came before, there’s actually been some controversy over him; the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has sued Netflix for depicting a more emotional Sherlock. Nevertheless, fans were both surprised and excited to see Cavill become Sherlock for Enola Holmes.

Related: Enola Holmes: How Henry Cavill’s Sherlock Compares To Robert Downey Jr

Cavill recently spoke about his experience playing Sherlock with Collider and dug into the pressure that comes with portraying such iconic figures like him, Superman, and Geralt. Interestingly, Sherlock was the character he felt the least amount of pressure for, and that is due to his attachment to the source material, not the external pressure. “It’s more about me –certainly with Superman and The Witcher – those are characters I grew up with and I love and I really, really want to represent in the most source-accurate way possible. That for me was a massive thing and still is a massive thing,” Cavill explained. However, when it came to Sherlock, “I wasn’t reading the books of Sherlock Holmes necessarily.”

henry cavill sherlock holmes arthur conan doyle

Cavill went on to explain how he’s often the one on set to question everything based on his knowledge of the source material. Since he was less familiar with Sherlock, though, he managed to sidestep that. “I managed to absolve myself of this duty which I put on myself which is being a law loyalist; it’s always about the details,” Cavill said. Those who have watched Enola Holmes might agree that Cavill’s Sherlock is far different than past iterations, and that’s actually a remarkable thing. After all, Sherlock has been portrayed more times onscreen than any other literary character, so providing a different spin on him is an impressive creative risk.

If fans and Cavill have their way, he could end up taking on another iconic role: James Bond. Cavill was previously in contention for the role, but it ended up going to Daniel Craig. However, with Craig vacating the role, it’s a mystery as to who will fill his shoes. Cavill is a popular pick, and he himself has voiced interest in it. His Superman future is still unclear, and Cavill won’t comment on it. However, between The Witcher and a possible Enola Holmes 2, Cavill might already have his hands full. Only time will tell what major role he’ll take next.

More: How We All Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Henry Cavill

Source: Collider

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Chris Rock Reflects on Original ‘Tower Heist’ Pitch: Robbing a Hans Gruber-Like Donald Trump

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Eddie Murphy’s original pitch to rob Trump Tower was very different before it became a movie with “a bunch of white people,” Rock says.

Before Alan Alda was cast to play the Ponzi-scheming bad guy in the 2011 caper comedy “Tower Heist,” the film was set to a have a more recognizable real-life villain. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter for a recent profile, Chris Rock recalled that Eddie Murphy’s original pitch was for a movie about a gang that robs a villainous Donald Trump.

Rock said he was in producer Brian Grazer’s office when Murphy pitched the movie — a kind of Black “Ocean’s Eleven,” starring Rock, Dave Chapelle, and Chris Tucker as a gang that robs Trump Tower. Trump would be the bad guy, “Like Alan Rickman in ‘Die Hard,’” Rock told THR.

The movie morphed during development into what we know today, “Tower Heist,” the more middle-of-the-road movie with a great cast of, as Rock puts it, “a bunch of white people.”

Directed by Brett Ratner, the film follows employees of a luxury apartment building who, after being fleeced out of their retirement funds by a scheming Alda, plot to rob him of $20 million. Ben Stiller, Casey Affleck, and Michael Peña play the employees, and Murphy plays the criminal they hire to help pull off the heist.

THR reported back in 2017, about six months into Trump’s presidency, that Ratner regrets moving away from the Trump storyline. “In retrospect, it would have been a bigger hit if it had been called ‘Trump Heist,’” he said.

While Trump’s long love of appearing on film and TV is well documented (“Zoolander,” “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York,” “Sex and the City”), many of those roles could be described as shrewd playboy billionaire rather than the villain that Murphy envisioned. Though Trump has previously described his tax avoidance as “smart,” it’s unlikely he would have agreed to appear in a movie where he steals his employees’ retirement money.

While his name or likeness didn’t make it into the final film, Trump did participate in the production of “Tower Heist.” THR reported that the movie’s press notes boasted about how Trump International Hotel & Tower and Trump Tower were both used as filming locations.

“With the cooperation of Donald Trump, who allowed the production access to several of his high-end properties, the filmmakers were able to incorporate true luxury locales in the film. … The real-estate mogul made a point of visiting the set during a break from taping his television series, ‘The Celebrity Apprentice,’ several floors up to see how Ratner and the cast were faring,” the production notes said.

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