Serious Fun with Joan Stiles
You can tell by the company she keeps and the way she juxtaposes tunes that Joan Stiles has a keen sense of humor. Her latest release, Three Musicians, features two of the most playful cats on the scene, West Hartford-born tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm and drummer Matt Wilson. Together they offer wonderfully inventive takes on a set that begins, as Stiles writes, on a “whistlin’ in the dark” note with “Everything’s Comin’ Up Roses,” then offers fresh looks at standards by Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Kern, Billy Strayhorn and Thelonious Monk. Stiles happily reports that “love gone right” songs win out over the other kind in this set of twelve.
What caught my ear immediately on Three Musicians are the daring combinations Stiles makes of tunes by Cream and Rodgers and Hart, Yip Harburg and The Beatles. As you’ll gather from a title like “In the Sunshine of My Funny Valentine’s Love,” this is more montage than medley, and hearing how tenor, piano and drums variously blend and separate these disparate themes and explore their harmonic possibilities brings to mind the action of a painter continually working over colors and textures and forms on a canvas.
The painterly aspect of the music is deliberate with Stiles, who reveals her own skill with acrylics in a cover collage that incorporates Picasso’s Three Musicians. Collage is a medium she especially enjoys in the work of Bearden, Picasso and Braque. “Their use of ephemera and juxtaposition influenced my approach,” she writes, and you’ll hear how well she utilizes Robert Rauschenberg’s concept of combine painting on “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime/Money Can’t Buy Me Love.” Stiles says this pairing was meant as a comment on the ongoing financial crisis, and Frahm’s raspy tenor underscores the “good trouble” and “open-hearted interplay” they engaged in as the music evolved.
On this and her previous recording, Stiles proves to be a dedicated keeper of Mary Lou Williams’ rich legacy. So far, she's recorded a few of Mary Lou's compositions, and her keyboard playing recalls Williams' vigorous attack and unconventional approach to harmony. Stiles even sings Mary Lou's “In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee" on her 2007 release Hurly-Burly.
Here's Dizzy Gillespie’s 1949 version of "Oo-Bla-Dee" with vocalist Joe Carroll singing Milt Orent's lyric of life in a fantastical bebop realm. It's the kind of humor this quick-witted threesome gets.