Some musicians talk about how difficult or how challenging Thelonious Monk's music is to perform. Fern Lindzon talks about how much she enjoys playing it.

Pianist and vocalist Fern Lindzon (r) performs with her long-time bassist and producer, George Koller, who "will finish my musical sentences", at Merrickville's Jazz Fest. (Photo provided by the artist)
Pianist and vocalist Fern Lindzon (r) performs with her long-time bassist and producer, George Koller, who "will finish my musical sentences", at Merrickville's Jazz Fest. (Photo provided by the artist)

At her show at Merrickville's Jazz Fest next Sunday evening, she'll perform several of his jazz compositions, singing as well as playing piano.

“Monk is fun! And thank goodness so many people have written great lyrics [to his music]. Some of the pieces are so great, and the lyrics are wonderful.”

In the last few months, the Juno-nominated Toronto jazz pianist and vocalist has presented several concerts of Monk music – with lyrics. Several musicians, including vocalist Jon Hendricks and pianist Mike Ferro, have written lyrics to Monk's instrumental tunes, and vocalist Carmen McRae famously sang an entire album of those adaptations – and Lindzon has been delving into this repertoire recently.

In June, she was asked to do a show of “Carmen Sings Monk” at the Barrie Jazz and Blues Festival. She then followed that up more recently with a “Mostly Monk” concert at Toronto's Lula Lounge.

In Merrickville, Lindzon will perform with Toronto bassist George Koller, a long-time collaborator, as well as Ottawa drummer Michel Delage. This spring, Delage organized a tribute show to Monk at Brookstreet's Options Jazz Lounge.

Monk appeals to Lindzon both as a pianist and as a vocalist.

“What's really fun is that, as a vocalist I get to sing this stuff, and as a pianist I get to accompany myself while I'm singing this stuff. So I have to be aware of what's going on harmonically, as well as melodically when I'm singing, so that I can still sing these notes. The reason why this note sounds so good is that underneath it is this that's going on, and it makes this note sound off, or kind of juicy, or whatever it is that it does to that note, just because of what I'm doing accompanying-wise."

She said she thought the lyrics really captured the feel of the instrumental music – for example, Ferro's lyrics for Monk's “Well, You Needn't”. They start off, “You talk so sweet. Well, you needn't. You say you won't cheat. Well, you needn't. You're tapping your feet. Well, you needn't. It's over now.”

Similarly, she said, Ferro's reworking of Monk's “Ugly Beauty” has lyrics which are “so tender and beautiful ... and so I get a little bit more romantic and a little less Monkish on that one.”

“But it's still Monk, [with] Monk's amazing harmonies which are just crazy. The more that I just explore what he was about, I mean he'll throw notes and chords that really do not belong there. He'll have a flat-five chord, and he'll put the the fifth in there! And the sixth! He can get away with doing all of these things that classical harmony says, 'You can't do that!' but somehow Monk gets away with just about anything.”

She said she did copy Carmen McRae's idea of starting off “Well, You Needn't” with just the voice and bass. “I think it's a really nice way to sing that tune.” In general, though, she said she took a different approach than McRae.

Especially with Monk's 100th birthday coming up in 2017, Lindzon said she hopes to have her next album mostly feature Monk compositions. “It's a good time to be thinking about Monk, and it's really fun to think about it from both an instrumental and a vocal perspective.”

Lindzon herself wrote lyrics to one Monk tune, “Evidence”, which she will perform at Merrickville. Monk based that piece on the jazz standard “Just You, Just Me”.

“I love this arrangement – it's really fun. I start off singing 'Just You, Just Me', and then I get into 'Evidence', and my lyrics to 'Evidence' actually talk about 'Just You, Just Me'. And I end it with [singing] 'Evidently'.”

Always driven by the lyrics

In her arrangements, Lindzon said, she has always been driven by the lyrics: “The melody is really important, but I really think about the lyrics."

For example, the standard “The Windmills of Your Mind” is central to her most recent album, Like a Circle in a Spiral [2014]. In arranging it, “I was thinking about windmills. How can I make this thing sound like it has windmills moving around in circles? And how can I do this in a way that no one's really done before. I'm always thinking about the lyrics.”

“That's what you've got: you've got lyrics and melody. Of course, you've got harmony, too, [but] you can always change harmony. And you can always change the groove, although sometimes the groove is what really attracts me to something.”

Adding jazz to Ron Sexsmith's "Jazz at the Bookstore" – and he liked it!

She'll be performing several pieces from Like a Circle in a Spiral at Merrickville, including a jazz arrangement of a tune by Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith. “Jazz at the Bookstore” takes aim at the “hipness” of playing blues and jazz as background music at chain bookstores. Sexsmith recorded that song with just his voice and simple guitar accompaniment, but Lindzon opened it up with a full jazz arrangement.

“I had met Ron Sexsmith when I was going to the [2012] Junos in Ottawa. I met him on the train and we were chatting, and I've always wanted to play one of his tunes. I [asked him], 'So, How would you feel about me taking one of your tunes and doing something more jazz with it?' and he said, 'Absolutely!' He's a very sweet guy.”

She was looking for a Sexsmith tune that hadn't been recorded by anyone else, and when she found “Jazz at the Bookstore”, she thought, “Oh my goodness! This is like ready-made fantastic!”.

“It's got great lyrics, it's got a great melody, it's an interesting little quirky tune. And I just thought I would have a lot of fun with it. I changed a bunch of the chords and I put a groove on it and then George helped with shaping the bass part, and then also coming up with the idea when I sing the part about 'Leadbelly's in the cold ground, rolling over in his grave'. At that point it's just with drums; there's no piano, there's no bass in there at all. We thought that that [emphasized] that starkness of the cold ground.”

Koller, who produced the album, devised the bass line which opens that song, she said. “I wanted to start it with bass. And I wasn't exactly sure what the bass [should do]. And then George just started playing this thing. And it was like, 'Yes, that's it! That's exactly what I was thinking.' So he'll finish my musical sentences.”

She sent the recording to Sexsmith before the album was released, and “he told me he really loved it”. She later got the chance to play it live in front of him at a loft party in Toronto. “It was kind of a scary moment, to actually play it live for him.”

Lindzon also regularly performs songs in Yiddish or Hebrew. For example, on her latest album she included an Israeli jazz tune called “Mishaela”, a song "that I just love to play and I don't know if I'll ever get tired of playing”.

She said hearing jazz sung in those languages can surprise audiences a little bit. “When I first started introducing some Yiddish and Hebrew into my performances, I was a little, 'Ummm, is this really a good idea? Is this going to go over OK?' And then I would find people were asking for it! So I thought, OK.”

Since she grew up going to a Hebrew day school, where students spoke Hebrew half of the day and English the other half, “I really enjoy singing in Hebrew. It feels very comfortable to me.” Yiddish she only learned over the last several years, “so it's a little less familiar and I have to actually look up every word so that I understand what I'm singing. But it's a fun language to sing in!”

Singing in those languages does require a slightly different approach, she said. In Yiddish, she swallows some word endings, eliminating final vowels, while in Hebrew, she needs to lighten an aspirated 'ch' sound to make it less harsh.

At Merrickville, she said she would be singing a Yiddish song by composer Alan Bern called “Afile” [“Not Even”], which she just recently learned. “It's based on a modern poem and it sounds like it could be a jazz standard. It just so happens that it is in Yiddish. It's just got this gorgeous melody and beautiful changes underneath it.”

Lindzon is also a big fan of Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti, and particularly his song “Loro”. On her album, she combined it with a song she wrote called “Shashado”. It's based on the chord changes from “Loro”, with a new melody and lyrics added on top.

As soon as she heard “Loro”, she said, she thought, “Omigod, that is an amazing tune! I really want to play it!” But because Gismonti plays it so quickly and with some complicated articulations, she had to slow down his recordings to 50% in order to learn it properly.

“When I first started playing it, I wasn't getting the detached staccato-y thing that he does with the notes, playing it more legato, a bit more smoothly. So I take it down to 50% and I play with him over and over again, and I put it up to 60 or 70% and to 80%. And I figure when I get to 80-85%, I'm doing OK, because that's really fast. He recorded that piece three times at least, three times that I know of, and each time he recorded it he played it faster! [laughs] What a genius he is!”

At Merrickville, Lindzon will also perform a song by pioneering jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, whom she sees as a role model. Robin Munro, the organizer of the Barrie Jazz and Blues Festival, inspired that connection, just as he did this year with Monk. He asked her to do thematic concert based on Williams' music: “I never would have really thought about Mary Lou Williams if it hadn't been for Robin.”

She realized that Williams' career encapsulated the history of jazz, from Kansas City swing right into bebop. “Someone told me that she was the one that introduced Monk to Pannonica.”

While she fell in love with many of Williams' pieces, particularly her Zodiac Suite, Lindzon said that the blues lament “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?” in particular has become a permanent part of her own repertoire. “It's such a wonderful song”.

For her most recent album, Like a Circle in a Spiral, Lindzon said that the circular imagery in “The Windmills of Your Mind” seemed to “put the whole record together for me. Aesthetically, I thought this seems like it's going to be the central core of the record: this idea of these circles and spirals, and things that go around, and life and death and happiness and sadness.”

But the circular imagery has continued in her music. Ferro's lyrics for Monk's “Ugly Beauty” contain the line, “The carousal is winding down”, she said. And “Child's Song”, a song by Fred Hersch which she's just adding to her repertoire with her own arrangement, also has that quality. The section she was just working on, she said, in fact has descending semi-tones in the bass suggesting different kinds of harmonies and “and in the meantime having these circular patterns going on.”

“It's very interesting, these circles and spirals that seem to be showing up all over the place.”

    – Alayne McGregor

The Fern Lindzon Trio will close Merrickville's Jazz Fest on Sunday, October 18. The trio is the second half of a double bill that evening. Lindzon will also appear in Montreal on Tuesday, October 20, at the Upstairs Club, in a duo with bassist Joel Kerr.

Read's 2012 interview with Fern Lindzon:

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