Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Coltrane by Franya J. Berkman

58_bookshelf_2Monument Eternal:
The Music of Alice Coltrane
by Franya J. Berkman
Wesleyan University Press
148 pages, photos, score excerpts;
$27.95 paper

in 1965, McCoy Tyner left John Coltrane’s legendary quartet, so Coltrane asked his wife, Alice Coltrane, to take over as pianist. AliceAwas an equally virtuosic, but more meditative player. John Coltrane died two years later, but the grumblings that she had ridden her husband’s coat-tails to success never stopped.

In this first study of Alice Coltrane’s music, musicologist Franya Berkman leadsAlice Coltrane out from under the shadow of her husband and treats her as a musician in her own right. When she met John Coltrane she was already an accomplished pianist and organist with her own distinctive sound. Berkman documents her early work as a church organist, gospel player, and jazz musician, and her studies with her mentor, Bud Powell, in Paris. She only had five years with John Coltrane before his early death, but she shared fully in his final explorations, not just musical but spiritual as well.

After John Coltrane’s death, Alice Coltrane pursued her own path altogether. When she became the spiritual leader of an Ashram in Southern California, she even forged a new identity. She changed her name to Swamini Turiyasangitananda, and concentrated on writing ecstatic hymns influenced by Hindu and other eastern rhythms and harmonies. In bringing attention to the depth and beauty of her later devotional music, Berkman is able to show that even here Alice Coltrane never strayed far from her roots in gospel, blues, be-bop, and the classical music she studied when young.

Berkman’s study is considerably enriched by the series of interviews she did with Coltrane before her death in 2007. Berkman paints a compelling portrait of an extraordinary woman. Fortunately Coltrane made many recordings — over twenty-five jazz albums alone — providing plenty of material for Berkman’s thoughtful musical analyses.

Alice Coltrane stopped recording and performing in public in 1979. Then, after twenty-five years away from jazz, she gave a concert with her sons Ravi and Oran Coltrane on saxophones. It was a triumphant return, but the recording which resulted, Translinear Light, turned out to be her final album. Berkman has produced a fascinating and important study, showing that it’s Coltrane’s years away from the jazz scene, rather than any musical shortcomings, that have lead to her being so frequently overlooked. In fact, it’s because Berkman offers such a powerful defence of Coltrane’s oeuvre, including the liturgical music of her last years, that I would have welcomed more attention to what Translinear Light accomplished, and where it pointed.

Ravi Coltrane performs in Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music on Saturday February 4, 2012 at 8.00.


The Well-Tempered Listener: Growing up with Musical Parents by Mary Willan Mason

bookshelf_masonThe Well-Tempered Listener:
Growing up with Musical Parents
by Mary Willan Mason
Words Indeed
230 pages, photos; $24.95

Because so much of Healey Willan’s work was devoted to the church — as a composer of sacred music, organist, and choir director — he was often regarded as a serious, devout and rather gruff character. But in her delightful memoir, his daughter Mary Willan Mason gives us another side to this complex, brilliant man, describing just how mischievous, witty and irreverently funny he could be. She still recalls a benefit concert at the Toronto (now Royal) Conservatory of Music, where he taught for many years.
“My father walked on stage wearing a frilly yellow frock with my hair ribbon up on top of his head. I couldn’t believe my eyes. He sat down at the piano pretending to be a very fidgety little girl doing her recital piece,” and performed “The World is Waiting for the Bunrise.” It was a dig at his colleague, Ernest Seitz, who, she later learned, had failed to acknowledge Willan’s help in writing his popular song The World is Waiting for the Sunrise.

Music was the main topic of conversation between Mason’s parents at home. Yet her mother, whose considerable musical accomplishments Mason describes with pride, had given up a promising career as a concert pianist in their native England because Willan would not allow his wife to work. “Although they had played together in public before their marriage,” she writes, “Dad showed his Victorian upbringing by not wanting Mother to perform in public after their marriage.” Willan’s biographer and former student F.R.C. Clarke quotes a family friend who described Gladys Willan as “long suffering.” Mason doesn’t go that far. But she does remark on their strained relationship, and reveals the hurt caused by a husband and father who, though undoubtedly gentle, respectful and loving, was remote and demanding.

Some of the many pleasures here are provided by Mason’s childhood memories of Toronto in the 1920s and 30s, when a water trough for horses sat outside the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Willan home on Inglewood Drive was surrounded by fields. One day she watched as the wooden Sunday school building originally from Christ Church, Deer Park was pulled by horses across the wooden planks of the St. Clair Avenue bridge to Glenrose Avenue, where it became the studio of family friends, sculptors Francis Loring and Florence Wyle.

Mason, a journalist and actor now in her nineties, is an astute observer with a remarkable memory. She is able to offer insights into Willan that no-one else could. Most memorable is the scene the evening after her mother’s unexpected death, when Willan sat down at his piano. “He must have played non-stop for at least half an hour. It was music that I had never heard before, and it was transcendentally lovely, ethereal. I asked him what it was, and he said, very quietly, ‘I was just thinking of your mother’.”

Expert editing, the author’s personal photos, and a detailed index help make this a memoir to treasure.

Rant & Dawdle: The Fictional Memoir of Colston Willmott As Imagined By William E. (Bill) Smith

bookshelf_rant___dawdle_coverRant & Dawdle:
The Fictional Memoir of Colston Willmott
As Imagined By William E. (Bill) Smith
Charivari Press
482 pages, photos; $28.95

There’s nothing straightforward about Bill Smith’s life and career, and his rambling, chaotic memoir is no different. It’s not just that it jumps all over, provoking even the author at one point to comment, “You may be wondering where all this is leading, as indeed I am.” For reasons Smith never actually explains, he presents this memoir as a work of fiction, telling the life-story of an imaginary character, Colston Willmott.

The life recorded here has been spent in extremes, driven by an obsession with jazz, and fuelled by an irrepressible imagination. But whose life is it? If it actually differs from Smith’s — and we suspect it doesn’t — we don’t find out here.

But as merely the author, and not the subject, of this “fictional memoir,” Smith gets to assume the voice of a third-person narrator. The text alternates between his narrative and that of his fictional doppelganger. It’s a clever device. Smith can call Willmott a “grumpy, doddering, old sod,” and Willmott can indulge his feelings of self-pity about everything from his declining health to the loneliness that possesses him.

As he moves into his seventies, Willmott takes pleasure in his considerable professional achievements, the books he reads so voraciously, the musicians he still listens to on disc, like Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Sonny Rollins, Anthony Braxton and Albert Ayler, his enduring and rewarding relationship with the woman he calls Essjay, and his abiding love for his two daughters, here referred to as Bones and Giggles.

It’s been over twenty years since Smith retreated from Toronto to Hornby Island. But he remains an essential presence on the Canadian jazz scene as a musician, photographer, record producer, radio host, editor, film producer and writer. This book provides a neat counterpart to Smith’s previous book, Imagine the Sound, which documented his life in jazz with poetry, photos and reminiscences of family, friends, and the extraordinary musicians Smith has played with, photographed, interviewed and recorded. They’re all here — in spirit, if not name. And so is his “old mate and business partner,” fellow Brit John Norris (here called Welman), the founder of Coda Magazine. Together they produced Coda, started Sackville Records and ran the Jazz and Blues Record Centre. Smith was the avant-gardist of the team; Norris, who died in 2010, the traditionalist.

This is such a hilarious, poignant, and thoroughly captivating tale that typos, repetitions and misspellings seem not to matter. The assortment of fonts used may be confusing, and it’s frustrating not to have the photos (many by Smith himself) identified. But better to preserve the rough edges than risk toning down and smoothing out the singularly authentic voice so brilliantly captured here.

African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston Composed by Randy Weston and arranged by Willard Jenkins

p48_africanrhythms_westoncoverAfrican Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston
Composed by Randy Weston and arranged by Willard Jenkins
Duke University Press
352 pages, photos; $32.95 US

• “IF YOU WERE to ask who is Randy Weston, it would be like making a stew. You throw in some Ellington, some Basie, some Monk, some Tatum, and some Nat Cole; throw in Africa, throw in some Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo. You put all of those ingredients in the pot, you stir it up, and you have Randy Weston.” Add this idiosyncratic autobiography to the mix and you have an even more vivid picture of who Randy Weston is – not just his influences, but his passions, experiences, and justifiable sense of having accomplished something worthwhile. On each page his personality comes through directly, especially since his “arranger” Willard Jenkins has taken care to preserve the rhythm and flow of Weston’s voice as he told Jenkins his story during the lengthy series of interviews they did for this book.

Weston is now eighty-five years old. Apparently he has always had the singular vision that suffuses his compositions like Hi Fly and Little Niles as well as his playing. That, he explains, is why he was never an enthusiastic sideman.

Weston discusses the development of his technique as a pianist, recalling experiences with great musicians like Charlie Parker, Ellington, Basie and especially his mentor, Monk. But mostly he wants to show the influence of African traditional music not just on his own music, but on the very roots of jazz. This approach may be common now, but back when he first started looking to Africa rather than New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz, it was controversial. In 1967 he went as far as to move to Morocco, where he lived for a number of years, immersing himself in the music of traditional people like the Gnawa in Tangier. “The African concept of music,” he writes, “is much deeper than the western concept and it’s based upon very powerful, spiritual values and supernatural forces, and pure magic.”

Inevitably, the meanderings that occur naturally in conversations make for some repetitions or fragments. But the voice that emerges here sounds convincingly like Randy Weston should – direct, passionate and utterly compelling.

Randy Weston is playing a solo concert at the Glenn Gould Studio on Sunday, June 26 at 6:00pm as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess: A 75th Anniversary Celebration by Marc Thompson; forward by Marc Gershwin

p48__porgy_and_bess_coverThe Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess:
A 75th Anniversary Celebration
by Marc Thompson;
forward by Marc Gershwin
Amadeus Press
200 pages, photos; $29.99 US

• AFTER THE FIRST full rehearsal of Porgy and Bess for the premiere in 1935, George Gershwin commented, “I think the music is so marvellous – I really don’t believe I wrote it!” As Robin Thompson shows in this history of the opera, Gershwin was hardly alone in his enthusiasm for what has come to be regarded as the great American opera. Even though opening night led to misunderstandings over whether it promoted racial stereotyping, and confusion over whether it was in fact an opera, audiences cheered – and it had a remarkable run of 124 performances.

The librettist Dubose Heyward was an aristocratic white Southerner whose great–great-grandfather had signed the Declaration of Independence, and the Gershwin brothers, composer George and lyricist Ira, were Jewish New Yorkers. Yet they had carefully based Porgy and Bess on the authentic dialects and songs of the descendants of African slaves who lived in Heywood’s hometown, Charleston, South Carolina. They insisted that only African-Americans could play the roles on stage, and refused to let Al Jolson play Porgy in blackface.

Their remarkably harmonious collaboration resulted in something entirely new – an operatic synthesis of European classical music and American jazz and blues. Thompson quotes Gershwin saying that that he hopes Porgy and Bess will combine the drama and romance of Carmen and the beauty of Die Meistersinger. It’s a great story, and although Thompson uncovers nothing new, he tells it with style. But the most interesting aspect of his book is the way he describes the performances of Porgy and Bess throughout the years. With his own perspective as a stage director, he analyzes the performers, director and designers of the various stagings with uncommon insight.

This book has been beautifully produced (apart from the spotty index), and illustrated throughout with a wonderful collection of photos of productions and casts, letters between Heyward and Gershwin, and paintings by the multi-talented brothers themselves, including some startlingly revealing self-portraits.

Lorin Maazel, who in 1975 conducted the first performance of the complete version of Porgy and Bess since the premiere, will lead his Castleton Festival Orchestra and soloists in selections from the opera at the BlackCreek Festival on Friday, July 22 at 8.00 pm.


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