Sunday, December 31, 2006

Saxophonist and composer Brian Patneaude has his top ten CDs of 2006 on his blog: "As 2006 draws to a close, here are ten jazz recordings that I've enjoyed this year, as well as a half-dozen non-jazz albums that spent a good deal of time playing on my iPod..."

Critic Zan Stewart of the Newark Star-Ledger adds his choices: "... jazz continues to thrive. Just look at the high level of quality and art in so many of the CDs released this year. Hearing music live will always remain the best avenue of exposure, but listening to an A-1 CD while relaxing at home is a pretty close second."

Finally, Francis Davis edits a meta list of jazz critics for the Village Voice including Tom Hull: "Critics were asked to list 10 albums in descending order, with 10 points awarded for their 1, 9 for 2, etc."

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Top 10 New Releases of 2006

1. Ornette Coleman - Sound Grammar: The music is classic Coleman with sweeping joyful arcs of alto on some reinterpretations of classics and a few new compositions. This is an endlessly exciting and powerful disc proving that Ornette Coleman is still a vital force in jazz.

2. Andrew Hill - Time Lines: A great band made up of a mixture of veteran musicians and younger up-and-coming talents for this disc of all original Hill compositions. This is a very good record and should go a long way to cementing Hill's status as one of jazz's most relentless pioneers.

3. Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood: This album itself is a triumph of class, dignity and open minded musicians drawing from many different genres and ideas to create an impressive cohesive whole.

4. Sonny Rollins – Sonny, Please: The music is quintessential Sonny Rollins - uptempo swingers, lush ballads and a calypso. He has a hard-won wisdom and trust in his band and this is a fine album and should make any long time Sonny watcher very happy.

5. Rudresh Mahanthappa – Codebook: Very good improvisations, mining a scalding mostly uptempo free-bop feel, owing some to Ornette Coleman's pioneering trail but is definitely the group's own.

6. Joe Louis Walker - Playin' Dirty: Walker's music explores a wide range of blues styles from soul to gutbucket and everything in between.

7. Vandermark 5 - A Discontinuous Line: What makes the group so special is that they remain grounded in the post bop and free jazz tradition but instead of being enslaved by that tradition they use it as the launching pad for their improvisational explorations.

8. Trio Beyond – Saudades: With the glut of tribute albums coming down the pike it's refreshing to hear one that calls attention to the pioneering fusion band Lifetime, originally led by drummer Tony Williams.

9. Elvis Costello - The River in Reverse: There have been many songs and albums recorded about Katrina and New Orleans, but the dignity and beauty of this music makes it one of the most memorable.

10. Ben Allison - Cowboy Justice: There's a "chamber jazz" feel to this record, but it doesn't distract from the music at all. In fact, it forces the listener to concentrate even more closely on the improvisations and the compositional structure of the music.

Honorable mention:

Mingus Big Band - Live in Tokyo
Dave Holland - Critical Mass
Harmonica Shah - Listen at Me Good
Calexico - Garden Ruin
Jimmy Heath Big Band – Turn Up the Heath
Dave Douglas - Jazz Standard: December 6, 2006, Set 1

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Top Historical Releases of 2006

1. Junior Wells - Live at Theresa's 1975: The music is top notch with Phil Guy (Buddy's under appreciated brother) sparking off hot runs on guitar, and Junior playing superb harp and singing in his deep soulful voice.For a glimpse into a hometown gig from one of Chicago's legends this can't be beat.

2. Miles Davis - Cellar Door Sessions 1970: All of the struggling to get this set out was worth it. Miles and the band are in fighting trim and fully plugged in, melding jazz, rock and R&B into something new.

3. Steve Lacy - Esteem: Live in Paris, 1975: An self-recorded live performance from Paris in 1975, it does lack the quality of a professional live recording, but this is easy to overlook for music of this high quality.

4. Thomas Chapin Trio - Ride: This archival release of the Chapin Trio performing live at the North Sea Jazz Festival brings back fond memories of what a truly special band that was.

5. John Lee Hooker - Hooker: The fisrt comprehensive boxed set covering the length of the great bluesman's career, from his early raw Detroit recordings to his final collaborative projects.

6. Sonny Simmons - Live at the Cheshire Cat: This limited edition release has two steaming sets of the great altoist recorded in 1980.

7. Gerald Wilson - Artist Selects: Composer and arranger Wilson cherry-picks his own favorite recordings from his Pacific Jazz years and provides a perfect introduction to his work.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Book 'em - Penguin Guides to Blues and Jazz

I have always been a sucker for guides and lists and so on, so picking up the new edition of the Penguin Guide to Jazz was a natural. This year for the first time there is a Penguin Guide to Blues as well. Both are extensive reference tomes clocking in at nearly 1,000 pages each, written by British music critics. While their reviews are certainly subjective and can't be taken as the gospel, both books are fascinating to flip through to get some recommendations about musicians you may be unaware of or are curious about. It's also occasionally infuriating to see them get a little sour with records you may know and love. On the jazz side, fans of the avant-garde and European improvisation will be well served by excellent coverage, while fans of bluesy soul jazz may feel looked down upon a tad. The blues guide has thorough coverage of both pre and post war blues with some fairly tough reviewing. Both books offer "crowns" to a handful of releases they deem to be of highest honor. Some of these are a little odd (no crown for any Coleman Hawkins disc?) but they are usually dependable choices and make for excellent discussion fodder. Note however, that both guides limit themselves to albums that were in print on compact disc at the time they went to press. Records that haven't made the leap to CD or discs that have fallen out of print are not reviewed. Despite the quirks, both books are highly recommended to music collectors as they open up many new avenues of musical enjoyment.
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Monday, December 25, 2006

CNN: James Brown, the legendary R&B belter, a singer and songwriter who created a foundation for funk and provided the roots of rap, a man of many nicknames but a talent that can only be described as one of a kind, is dead. Brown died early Monday at Atlanta's Emory Crawford Long Hospital of congestive heart failure, his agent said. He was 73.

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Sun Ra - Sun Sound Pleasure (Saturn, 1953-60)

This record (also released on compact disc through the Evidence label) documents some of the earliest commercial recordings of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Recorded when the band was based in Chicago, this has highly arranged orchestral jazz which might surprise those who only know Ra as a Saturnian wild man. Beginning with a swanky version of Monk's "Round Midnight" with Hattie Randolph on vocals, the band moves into "You Never Told Me That You Care" a languorous, full-figured arrangement. The pace picks up about 2/3 of the way through the performance with some very nice trumpet playing for Hobart Dotson. "Hour of Parting" has a mild arrangement, but things really fall into place with "Enlightenment," a future Ra standard which opens with a blast of gong and then some excellent baritone saxophone by Pat Patrick on the memorable melody. "I Could Have Danced All Night" ends the proceedings with a more percussive feel, foreshadowing the adventurous music to come on future records. There's a strong full band intro with heavily comped piano from Ra, and a touch of exotic flute in the improv section. This was an auspicious start for the Sun Ra Arkestra, walking a fine line between composition, arrangement and improvisation. This album would make excellent blindfold test material when mixed amongst comparable big band recordings of the era.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Various Artists - Wildflowers 2 (Douglas, 1976)

This was the second LP in a five record set docummenting the avant-garde jazz "loft scene" that flourished in and around Sam Rivers' Studio RivBea loft in New York City in the mid-1970's. Both veteran musicians and newcomers to the scene were docummented, and the entire set was reissued by Knitting Factory on compact disc in the 1990's. On this record, a group called Flight to Sanity featuring drummer Harold Smith and soprano saxophonist Art Bennett establish a groove of swirling, vaguely Middle Eastern sounding soprano saxophone over piano, bass, drums and percussion. The pianist, Sunelius Smith comps heavily while Don Moye of the Art Ensemble of Chicago simmers on hand percussion. Flautist Ken McIntyre plays a flighty and birdlike improvisation on "Naomi." Anthony Braxton leads a very complex improvisation called "73-S Kelvin." The music is as complex as the title indicates, with no set melody to hang onto. The band plays freely and Braxton takes some high register squeaking solos on alto saxophone and clarinet. Marion Brown takes a solo alto sax feature on "And Then They Danced" playing in a slightly caustic but not overblown manner. He tells a fine story, but runs a little long. Finally trumpeter Leo Smith leads a free group including Stanley Crouch on drums (!) through a jittery performance where instruments pop up and and drop out at will. There is some very fine music throughout this whole set and fans of free jazz are encouraged to track this down as either an LP or CD.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Rudresh Mahanthappa – Codebook (Pi, 2006)

Alto saxophonist and composer Mahanthappa picks some really interesting concepts for his albums. His last record, Mother Tongue, contained improvisations based on the different languages and dialects spoken in India. This one takes the different mathematical methods of cryptography, code making and breaking as jumping off points for improvisations. And what good improvisations they are, mining a scalding mostly uptempo free-bop feel, that owes some to Ornette Coleman's pioneering trail but is definitely the group's own. Joining Mahanthappa on this disc are frequent collaborator Vijay Iyer on piano, along with Francois Moutin on bass and Dan Weiss on drums. "The Decider" comes barreling out of the gate with a complex theme and a blistering alto solo from the leader. "Frontburner" is another tune taken at a quick tempo. It's a testament to the quality of the musicians that they can improvise on such intricate themes at such speed without faltering. Things mellow out a little bit on a few numbers, but it is the barn burners that really stick in my mind. This is very exciting and interesting music. Don't let the complexity throw you off, the music may be very tough to play but much like John Coltrane's music like "Giant Steps" or "Mr. P.C." that difficulty does not't effect the enjoyment of one of the best jazz albums of the year.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

"The King of Blues, B.B. King, has been given the highest civilian honour in the U.S. — the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The musician, born Riley B. King on a Mississippi plantation, continued to expand his fan base, becoming an opening act on The Rolling Stones' 1969 American tour and broadening his success with hits during the 1970s, including To Know You Is to Love You, The Thrill is Gone and I Like to Live the Love."

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Gerald Wilson - Artist Selects (Blue Note, 2006)

Wilson has had a long and successful career as an arranger and composer (and occasional trumpeter) on the west coast jazz scene. This is a one disc collection with the selections chosen by Wilson himself, made up of from his recordings on the Pacific Jazz label in the early to mid 1960's. These are all large band recordings, but there are some interesting touches that make all the difference. The first few tracks including “Jeri” and “Blues for Yna-Yna” feature songs that are built around the swirling Hammond b3 organ of Richard “Groove” Holmes. Wilson was a big fan of bullfighting, and Spanish music comes through as an influence on the brassy “Carlos” and “Paco” which also features some woncerful guitar from Joe Pass. Along with the original compositions, there are some well arranged standards featured on this disc. Miles Davis' “Milestones” expands on the original quintet version with a large group riffing through the melody. Thelonious Monk's “Round Midnight” gets a fine turn with another solo spot for Pass. Wilson's liner notes are interesting and provide background information and historical context for the music. The music here is interesting and original, this is a very classy and well done collection which is recommended to jazz fans interested in Wilson's music.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

There's a nice article on Vijay Iyer in the Detroit Free Press: "One of the things both Vijay and I have worked on is integrating elements of Indian classical music on a conceptual level," says alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who has worked regularly with Iyer for a decade. "It's a synthesis of ideas. It ends up transcending not only superficial notions of Indo-jazz fusion, but it also transcends what is the average jazz sound."

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Dave Douglas - Jazz Standard: December 6, 2006, Set 1

By forming his own record label, Dave Douglas has much more flexibility in recording and distributing his music. His latest project was recording a weeks worth of live performances by his band at the Jazz Standard in New York City and making them available for sale through his web site. I downloaded the first set from their second night of recording. The band is Douglas on cornet; Donny McCaslin on tenor saxophone; Uri Caine on electric piano; James Genus on bass and Clarence Penn on drums. The recordings sound is very good and the files are non-DRM mp3 files encoded at 192Kbps. The set starts with "Penelope" which is a mid-tempo performance, with a break about 2/3 of the way through, building tension which is resolved by some shimmering electric piano. Douglas sounds very good and confident on the cornet. "Painter's Way" features some funky fender rhodes electric piano setting a nice melody."Living Streams" opens with cornet and then McCaslin comes in with some mellower ballad playing, sounding a little forced. This song drags a little and is the weak link of the set. The group bounces back with "Skeeterism" as Douglas and McCaslin intertwine in the melody before the tenor saxophone breaks free for some fine modern bop soloing. Caine gets some nice pastel-ish rhodes in over riffing horns. "Meaning and Mystery" is a fine feature for Douglas' cornet over some mellow electric piano. The set ending "Seventeen" allows the band to stretch out at great length with some fine ensemble playing and a round of good solos. This is a good snapshot of an important working band on the job, and is recommended to Douglas' many fans.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Trumpeter and blogger Taylor Ho Bynum writes in his blog Spider Monkey Stories about fellow brassman Dave Douglas: "The basic improvisational and melodic language of his Quintet music is far more harmonically rigorous and specific, so I wanted to see how he would navigate that context on the new horn. A switch like this is a subtle risk, but a real one, and I respect that an artist in Dave’s position, with his success, is giving himself some new challenges and trying to hear things differently."

The wonderful blog Destination Out has mp3's from Pharoah Sanders' rare Impulse album Village of the Pharoahs: "But then along comes Village of the Pharoahs. It’s a practically a cliche in free jazz circles to prize the rare track over the better known composition, but ”Village” gets us going in a way that “The Creator” simply doesn’t. Unlike some of Sanders’ work (”Creator” included) that hits a solid groove and then adds or subtracts chants and musical textures in a musical equation that can produce diminishing returns, “Village” keeps on giving."

The out-of-print free jazz blog Church Number Nine has a wonderful LP from Sabir Mateen called Tenor Rising Drums Expanding for downloading: "In 1996 Sabir Mateen, Daniel Carter and David Nuss formed a short-lived trio Tenor Rising Drums Expanding. As you may know they collaborate often and many recordings exists, but this particular band printed only one and a half record, that is one full LP (offered here) and a one-sided album. The short one was recorded in 1996, while this in 1997. Curiously Daniel Carter here plays only drums, as does David Nuss, whereas Sabir Mateen plays tenor and organ. (how about that? How many times you’ve heard Sabir Mateen playing organ?)"

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Monday, December 11, 2006

The Minutemen - We Jam Econo DVD (Plexifilm, 2006)

The Minutemen were a legendary post-punk rock and roll band, blasting out of California in the early 1980's. This very well done DVD mixes some rare concert footage and interviews with the two surviving band members, Mike Watt and George Hurley and many other musicians from the hardcore scene to produce a definitive overview of this influential band and a fond remembrance of guitarist and singer D. Boon, whose death in a car accident brought the band to an early end. The DVD begins the story with Boon and Watt meeting in high school and Boon's mother encouraging them to play music to stay out of trouble and then follows their path to meeting drummer Hurley and joining the roster of SST records. While the tone of the documentary is overwhelmingly positive, there are a few funny moments where the sparks and anger of touring the country in a van took their toll. Commentaries come from musicians (Nels Cline waxing nostalgic while sitting in a chair with his cat on his lap!) and scenesters and music critics. The music clips tend to be mostly on the lo-fi side, but definitely shows the energy of the band. This excellent mix of music and commentary is recommended to any fan of rock and roll.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Normally I'm not too impressed by the Grammy nominations in any particular year, and this year is no exception, except for one catagory:

Category 48: Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group (For albums containing 51% or more playing time of INSTRUMENTAL tracks.)

Sound Grammar
Ornette Coleman
[Sound Grammar]

The Ultimate Adventure
Chick Corea
[Stretch Records]

Trio Beyond — Saudades
Jack DeJohnette, Larry Goldings & John Scofield

Beyond The Wall
Kenny Garrett

Sonny, Please
Sonny Rollins
[Doxy Records]

That's not too shabby of a list... the Coleman, Rollins and Trio Beyond discs will most likely show up on my top 10 for this year and the Garrett has some very good moments. It's also interesting to see three albums nominated that are by independent musician run labels. The Corea is the weak link for me, I love his acoustic piano playing but this fusion-lite concept album left me cold.

If I ruled the world, I think my nominees for this category would be: Andrew Hill - Time Lines (Blue Note), Ornette Coleman - Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar), Vandermark 5 - A Discontinuous Line (Atavistic), Sonny Rollins - Sonny, Please (Doxy) and Ben Allison - Cowboy Justice (Palmetto). While we're at it, my nominees for Contemporary Blues Album would include: Joe Louis Walker - Playin' Dirty (JSP) and Harmonica Shah - Listen at Me Good (Electro-Fi); and nominees for the pop/rock fields would have to include Elvis Costello & Allen Toussiant - The River in Reverse and Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti).

Send your nominees to: Tim

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Frank Wright - Unity (ESP, 2006)

Fire breathing saxophonist Frank Wright burst into the free jazz world immediately following the exploits of Albert Ayler. He locked on to the spiritually informed, high energy playing of Ayler and Pharoah Sanders and then made his own way, playing as a journeyman until his death in the early 1990's. This disc was recorded live at the Moers Jazz Festival in 1974 with Bobby Few on piano, Alan Silva on bass and Muhammad Ali on drums. Although the first blush heyday of free jazz had passed, the crowd is very enthusiastic and establishes a great rapport with the band. This concert consisted of a non-stop improvisation just short of one hour, broken on the disc into two parts. The music recorded here is very loose and freewheeling, to the point of nearly flying apart at times. Silva's bass is lost for the most part except when he is soloing, and the loud percussive power of Ali's drums and Few's McCoy Tyner meets Cecil Taylor piano style dominates with Wright blasting squalls of tenor saxophone (and a little harmonica and melodica) over the rumbling foundation. Yes, things do get a little sloppy at times, this isn't intricate bebop or arranged swing, it's a free for all sausage factory style... messy but pretty tasty in the end. Wright hasn't been to popular amongst jazz critics because he was a one trick pony, but if you happen to enjoy that trick, it's not bad. Fans of ecstatic old-school free jazz should find a lot to enjoy here, because it's an exciting, crowd pleasing performance.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Nate Chinen writes in the New York Times: "Over the last six months, a far-flung contingent of musicians and aficionados has made an effort to upend that prevailing notion, armed with stacks of vinyl, high-speed Internet and a shared conviction that things back then were really far from moribund. Along the way, they touched off the year’s most animated public discourse on jazz, a democratic exchange that culminated last weekend in the debut of, an interactive database devoted to the music’s most conflicted period."

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Sonny Rollins - Sonny, Please (Doxy, 2006)

This is Sonny Rollins' first new studio album in five years and the first since the passing of his beloved wife Lucille and the formation of his own record label. That's a lot of changes for one person to go through, but one thing that hasn't changed is his commitment to music. Joining Rollins on this record are Clifton Anderson on trombone, Bobby Broom on guitar, Bob Cranshaw on bass, Steve Jordan on drums and Kimati Dinizulu on percussion. The music is quintessential Sonny Rollins - uptempo swingers, lush ballads and a calypso. The uptempo flag-wavers are the opening track, "Sonny, Please" which allows Rollins to solo at length over a bubbling cauldron of drums and percussion, "Nishi," which may be the highlight of the entire disc, finds our hero digging deep on tenor for a lengthy improvisation brimming with ideas. "Park Palace Parade" rounds the disc out with a funky calypso-like tune adding some whistle effects to keep things moving briskly along. "Someday I'll Find You" and "Remembering Tommy" hold up the ballad end very well, with a longing but never sentimental or sloppy feel. Much has been made in the past about Sonny Rollins' discomfort with the studio environment, but there really isn't a trace of that here. Everyone seems comfortable and happy and the record is well produced. There's also been some talk on websites and blogs about whether Sonny has lost a step in his playing. Truthfully, I don't hear that on this album. His solos are a little shorter and pithier, but I think that comes from a hard-won wisdom and trust in his band rather than any decline in skills. This is a fine album and should make any long time Sonny watcher very happy.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Steven Bernstein's Millenial Territory Orchestra - MTO, Vol. 1 (Sunnyside, 2006)

Trumpeter and composer Steven Bernstein is another eclectic musician who is at home in many different settings from the funky jazz of the Sex Mob ensemble to heavy acoustic recordings with multi-reedist Sam Rivers. This album is a larger group recording which tips its hat to the "territory bands" that toured the Midwest and southwest during the 1930's. Groups led by legends to be like Count Basie and Walter Page toured incessantly during the depression era making towns like Oklahoma City and of course Kansas City capitals of blues based swing music. Instead of taking a nostalgic or archival look back at this period, Bernstein's ensemble is thoroughly modern. On this album, the "little big band" formula is put to good effect, as the band is large enough to have many musical options available, but not too large as to lose the nimble feel. The instrumental songs are quite strong with Bernstein leading the way himself on the swinging "Happy Hour Blues." The ensemble as a whole shines on the unlikely cover of Prince's "Darling Nikki." A couple of vocal tracks are also here like the slowed down but very funky cover of "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" and the not quite as successful kitschy version of "Pennies From Heaven." Fans of eclectic music should enjoy this album, because it's difficult to pigeonhole. Taking an idea from jazz's past and updating it with modern musical idea and compositions, Bernstein has hit upon a very interesting concept, one that he will hopefully continue to build on with future albums.

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Elliot Sharp - Sharp? Monk? Sharp! Monk! (Clean Feed, 2006)

Guitarist Elloit Sharp has covered a lot of ground in his career, from gutbucket blues to experimental jazz, he has never been afraid to tackle tough projects. On this, his most recent album for the Portuguese Clean Feed label, he radically reinterprets some of the most well known pieces of the Thelonious Monk songbook on unaccompanied solo guitar. Many tributes have come Monk's way since his death, most were very respectful to his knotty sensibilities, but few tried to re-imagine Monk's unique music. That as at the core of Sharp's mission here, stripping Monk's music down to the chassis to find out what makes him roll so well. The well known melodies are still there, but they are reflected through the funhouse of Sharp's Shackleton-like explorations. The melody for "Bemsha Swing" is picked out carefully before being deconstructed, "Round Midnight" keeps its noir sensibility, but leaves its New York stomping grounds for a near Waits-ian trip to distant lands. "Mysterioso" and especially "Well You Needn't" most successfully meld Monk's jumpy melodies to Sharp's minimalist explorations. This can be a tough listen, somewhat along the lines of Sharp's colleague Marc Ribot's Saints LP from a few years ago, just not as eclectic. But as Monk tributes go, it's definitely an original one, and does manage to shed some new light on the well dissected corpus of Thelonious Monk's music.

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