Star Time

The music of Kurt Weill revisited; T.S. Monk carries the family torch

By Greg Cahill

Various Artists
September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill
Sony Classical

IN 1985, producer Hal Willner–then the musical director of Saturday Night Live–launched the tribute album craze with Lost in the Stars (A&M), an obscure compilation that featured an all-star lineup of mostly rockers covering the works of Kurt Weill, the German-born composer of light operas and Broadway musicals.

A couple of years ago, Hallner declared that the whole trend had become so insipid he was sure he’d never produce another tribute compilation.

Well, then again. . . .

Willner has returned to the tried-and-true tribute formula he helped create, and, sure enough, the subject is the haunting work of Kurt Weill. Actually, this time out Willner’s compilation is a soundtrack to a new film on the composer by director Larry Weinstein, but with the likes of gothic rockers Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, respectively, crooning their ghostly way through “Mack the Knife” and “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife,” who would know that this isn’t just a thinly veiled excuse to rework Lost in the Stars (covered here by Elvis Costello, by the way)?

Once again the idea of placing big-name pop stars among the murky street urchins, hustlers, and hookers who populate the smoky cabaret settings of Weill’s and collaborator Bertolt Brecht’s best songs sounds better on paper than in real life. That’s not to say that there aren’t some gems: the gospel-oriented Persuasions deliver the goods on “O Heavenly Salvation,” and opera diva Teresa Stratas–not exactly a household name in pop music circles–steals the show with an gut-wrenching rendition of “Youkali Tango.”

But you know that Lou Reed, who gives a very dark reading of the title track, could have stayed home and caught up on his beauty rest when the two scratchy archival recordings of Lotta Lenya–Weill’s wife and longtime stage star–sends you scrambling for more to that old Lotta Lenya Album (CBS) greatest-hits compilation.

Now that’s the music of Kurt Weill!

T.S. Monk
Monk on Monk

AS THE SON of jazz piano bebop legend Thelonious Sphere Monk, drummer, arranger, and bandleader T.S. Monk walks in a mighty long shadow. This dazzling new CD is a remarkably strong statement of purpose that finds the younger Monk paying homage to his father and standing tall.

The disc, executive produced by pop music heavyweight Phil Ramone, comprises swinging versions of nine of the elder Monk’s best-known compositions–“Little Rootie Tootie,” “Dear Ruby,” et al. It also features some of the hottest soloists on the jazz scene, including pianist Herbie Hancock, trumpeters Clark Terry and Roy Hargrove, saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Grover Washington Jr., vocalists Nnenna Freelon and Dianne Reeves, and bassists Ron Carter and Christian McBride. Impressive company. In arrangement after arrangement, Monk shows that he is up for the challenge.

Indeed, while Monk has been less than shy about blowing his own horn to the press as a world-class arranger–and he does show great promise–his real forte is bringing together these seasoned veterans and young lions and checking his ego long enough to allow the improvizational wizardry of his guests to come to the fore.

And the rewards are many, from the soaring scat singing of Freelon and Reeves on “Suddenly (in Walked Bud)” to the rousing interchanges between tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval on “Bright Mississippi.”

This is a real step forward for Monk, who started out playing the guitar and later learned drums after receiving a pair of sticks from Max Roach and full drum set from Art Blakey–quite an auspicious beginning. Monk started his career as an R&B-oriented recording artist. In 1992, he released his first straight jazz album as a leader, Take One (Blue Note), and followed up with 1993’s Changing of the Guard (Blue Note). He won considerable critical acclaim for 1995’s The Charm (Blue Note).

Monk on Monk raises the stakes and heightens the anticipation for the next move by an artist who is establishing himself as a real force in his own right.

From the Sept. 18-24, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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