WE ARE GOING BACK IN TIME, WAY FARTHER THAN WE EVER DID BEFORE! Did you know how we pick the years for our NOISE UPON A TIME? I simply use a random number generator to pick a year between 1960 and 2010 – and to be fair, most of our writers are kinda scared of those early years. 1963 is primarily a remarkable year (well, in a morbid and tragic way) for the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but also on a more positive note, for Valentina Tereshkova being the first woman in space. And also, music happened!

Sandy Bull – Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo

released August 1963, by Vanguard Records

revisited by Dominik Böhmer

1963, huh? This was the year to give me the most problems when trying to come up with a record to talk about, and by a large margin, too. Most of my favorite records haven’t been released until at least half a decade later, and some came out before 1963. Try as I might, I just couldn’t for the life of me nail down a single record I would want to have included in this episode of Noise Upon A Time. I was *this close* to throwing in the towel on this one; not that it would’ve been especially dramatic, since I’m not obligated to appear on every single episode. But still.

That’s when our resident music library/editor-in-chief approached me with Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo by Sandy Bull; neither name sparked any sense of familiarity within me. Knowing my inclination towards American primitive guitar and psychedelic folk music – I love me some spiritually-inclined and world music-informed acoustic music – he gave me this album to try out. Needless to say that it clicked with me enough to make me want to write a few words about it. Now that we know how I got here (no deeply personal anecdotes for this one, sorry), let’s see what Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo is all about, shall we?

Together with drummer Billy Higgins (known for his tenure with Ornette Coleman, among other achievements), Bull cut a deeply engrossing, spiritually enriching record that I think should’ve made its way into my earholes way sooner. Oh well. Side A is occupied in full by the massive 22-minute piece “Blend”. It plays out like a true epic, a musical journey that occupies its space with gravitas and a sense of playfulness. Bull displays his chops on guitar and banjo very well, but it’s his compositional gift that takes the cake here – the ebb and flow of intensity he achieves on this longtrack is a sight to behold… with your ears. Yeah. Either way, this is an album opener to end all album openers, and we’re just getting started.

Next are two covers, one of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” – titled “Carmina Burana Fantasy”, probably in keeping with the Fantasias part of the album title – and one of the Christian hymn “Non nobis Domine”. Both of these offer a lot to the willing listener, as they are far from simple retreads of the originals. In Bull’s hands, the former turns into a banjo tour de force, delicately interpreted but powerfully executed, while the latter’s short but skillful rendition has an air of exalted humility about it.

Last but not least, two originals mark the home stretch of Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo. “Little Maggie” is an upbeat Americana tune played on the banjo. It’s got an almost old-timey charm, like a musical gift passed down for generations between a family’s firstborn sons in the old West. Achieving a timeless feel like that takes a masterful touch, and Bull has both the instrumental and compositional skills to make it happen. On the album’s 10-minute closer “Gospel Tune”, Bull’s strumming and picking almost sounds funky; there’s so much fire and joy in his playing here that it’s hard to resist the groove.

Making this much out of such a minimalistic set-up proves that less can indeed be more, especially in art. All it took for Sandy Bull to make a special record was a banjo, a guitar, and some microphones – occasionally an exceptional drummer, too. Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo is a testament to the boundless creativity that can lie in certain self-imposed restrictions, and on top of that, it’s simply an enjoyable set of tunes that’ll satisfy everyone who likes acoustic music, from the psych folk crowd to the old country heads.

Thelonious Monk – Monk’s Dream

released March 1963, by Columbia Records

revisited by Joe McKenna

Exploring the intricate and vast world of jazz music has been somewhat of a recent endeavour for me over the past year or so, one that I never thought I’d ever become so immersed in over time. Yet, it seemed like a natural progression, considering my interest in more technical-sided metal genres; bizarre avant-garde noise experimentations; and contemplative ambient tracks that imbued moments of delicate and complex musicality. My early beginnings with jazz music styles and scenes were therefore all over the place taking a deep intrigue for sounds coming out of the pioneering New Orleans performers such as Louis Armstrong; the hard bopping bass popping of Charles Mingus, the relaxing cool jazz escapades of Chet Baker; the mesmerizing compositional brilliance of world-renowned figures like Miles Davis and John Coltrane; as well as a recent exploration into the avant-garde world of free jazz aficionado Cecil Taylor. However, it was perhaps more of an awakening to this musical world through the wild and unorthodox compositional work of pianist Thelonious Monk.

Playing an integral role in the formulation of the bebop and hard bop eras, Thelonious Monk’s approach to composition was somewhat more eccentric and challenging at a time where previous forms of jazz such as swing and cool jazz upheld a sense of commercial and cultural dominance. Monk’s playing style not only rebelled against this sense of hierarchy in the early jazz world, but his unconventional and rather adventurous improvisational characteristics, which featured constant dissonances and disjointed rhythmic sections, was even too much for some other beboppers at the time. It was because of this fiercely unorthodox yet highly innovative avant-garde nature of the pianist’s compositional methods that many were late to follow suit on Monk’s influence making him in some sense an outsider within this early jazz world up until around the 1950s, where he began to gain higher levels of recognition for his work. Initially signing for Riverside Records in the mid-to-late ’50s, Monk’s reputation was still of a cult status; it wasn’t until Brilliant Corners (1956) where he achieved his first commercial success. A few years after, Monk signed a deal in 1962 with Columbia Records. This would mark the beginning of a string of releases that earned the composer a higher degree of recognition. The first record to be released in this series of notable works of course was 1963’s Monk’s Dream.

Of course, I could have selected a vast majority of Thelonious Monk’s Columbia releases if I wasn’t limited to the year 1963; however, there’s plenty to take from this one album that features so much of the iconic composer’s arsenal. This was obviously the beginning in one way of Monk’s increased fame, but it is also a staple of what the composer had realised thus far in his early career as one of jazz’s bravest and most legendary geniuses. The record is filled with these sharp accents on the piano notes that really push the rhythmic tension and pay homage to that wild and unconventional jazz sound that Monk seems all too keen to explore further. Room is made for these insane improvisational sections that tangent off into a feverish wonderland of madness before finding some nice harmonious ground. Monk’s adventurous piano playing is further complemented by the exquisiteness of Frankie Dunlop’s rhythmically challenging drum beats and Charlie Rous’ mind-bending tenor saxophone improvisations on tracks like “Bright Mississippi” and “Five Spot Blues”, tearing through the fabric of the traditional jazz playbook where they formulate new ground. Another standout for me personally as a bassist is John Ore’s consistency and diligence to keep on point such as on the opening self-titled track “Monk’s Dream” and the swift “Bye-Ya” that pursues intricate basslines of an enthusiastic nature

You simply cannot take anything away from Thelonious Monk’s supporting band on this album, and there are just so many ways that these musicians showcase their dexterity. On the other hand, you also can’t ignore Monk’s solo tracks, in which he exhibits his compositional brilliance through many adventurous piano-based pieces of notable composers at first feel quite minimalist in its outer layer, but once you immerse yourself in the composer’s jazz playing, you get a feel for his idiosyncrasy. The artist’s interpretation on the Johnny Green song “Body and Soul”, for example, captures the essence of Monk’s passion and his ability to just naturally give his all into a piece and allow the listener to find radiance in this. “Just a Gigolo” (originally by Italian composer Leonello Casucci) is much more sombre through Monk’s performance of the piece; you can perhaps get a sense of the artist’s personal accounts and experiences, his triumphs and tragedies, his achievements and setbacks. Its time might only span a couple minutes, but it’s soulfulness illuminates much longer.

It is through the pianist’s unique and idiosyncratic approach to these tracks that clearly give them more meaning and expressiveness; this is how Thelonious Monk was able to establish a certain sense of identity that deviated from the typical conventions of broader jazz circles. His hard bop infused, dissonant execution of the music stands as a statement to experimentation for future jazz musicians to explore. Monk’s Dream is a powerful and wonderful display of exceptional jazz musicianship, a staple of the time perhaps when jazz artists had a sort of chemistry with each other that just seemed to fall into place, and all four performers on this record deserve credit for their inventiveness to pull off such mesmerizing improvisational techniques and showmanship. What else could be said about Thelonious Monk here, other than the fact that by this period in his career, he had the jazz world at the palm of his hand and he was ready to demonstrate his talent and ability for a new jazz audience hungry for experimentation and freedom from convention?

Toni Meese

Toni Meese

I know more than you.

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