Monday, November 30, 2009

History lessons: Thelonious Monk + Norwegian black metal

Been spending time with two important new works of music history.


Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
As expected, Robin D.G. Kelley's new Thelonious Monk biography is outstanding. I feel like I'm learning something on every page. Did you know that to this day Monk shares a "Round Midnight" composer credit with both trumpeter Cootie Williams and lyricist Bernie Hanighen, neither of whom had much to do with the tune in its original state? Or that it was Herbie Nichols (yes, the genius pianist) who penned the first published review of a Monk performance? Or that when Bud Powell was first breaking into the scene, Monk escorted him to jam sessions and essentially forced other musicians to give him a chance? I'm just now getting to the part where the bebop revolution takes off and leaves Monk behind. Can't wait to find out exactly how and when the man began to get his fair due and really come into his own as a composer. Listeningwise, the book has already sent me off on a Monk spiral. I pulled out the Monk/Trane Carnegie Hall set over the Thanksgiving weekend and was re-amazed by its special grace, especially the opening sax-piano duo version of "Monk's Mood," which is simply one of the most sublime jazz recordings in existence. I also spun a bit of Elmo Hope, an interesting and underrated pianist who, according to Kelley, used to pal around quite a bit with Monk and Bud Powell.


Until the Light Takes Us
Yes, this is the highly anticipated black-metal documentary that I've been hearing about for quite some time. (It opens in NYC this Friday.) Definitely worth seeing, especially if you're an enthusiast of this subculture. Might come off as somewhat sketchy for the uninitiated, but there's still enough here to pique plenty of interest and stimulate further study. There's more to this story, for sure, but no one can fuck with the film's basic primary-source approach. The infamous Varg "Count Grishnackh" Vikernes (of Burzum fame) is interviewed here at length about his nefarious deeds. You probably already know what he did, but there's no substitute for hearing him describe it firsthand. (Simply terrifying and nigh unbelievable.) The strongest aspect of Until the Light Takes Us is the way the filmmakers contrast Vikernes's charismatic yet obviously utterly insane take on the black-metal ethos with that of Darkthrone drummer Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell. It's basically the difference between a literal interpretation of the gospel ((Vikernes) and an aestheticized one (Fenriz), the result being that circa now the former man has just been released from a lengthy prison sentence while the latter is still living a humble yet productive musician's life in Oslo. It's fascinating to see how even though the two no longer communicate they still exert some strange gravitational pull on one another, as though the extraordinarily fucked-up events of the early-'90s black-metal scene have locked them in an eternal bond. Whatever you think of this music or the mystique that surrounds it, you should definitely have a look at this flick - at this point, it's the closest thing we have to a definitive treatment. Like many music docs, it skimps a bit on the actual music, but there's enough here to spark further research if you're so inclined. (Though in my experience, old-school black metal heard on record doesn't always live up to the legend.)

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