When Donny Hathaway, Thelonious Monk And Neil Young Hit A Turning Point NPR's Melissa Block talks with music critic Tom Moon about three recently released live recordings, all from around 1970, that each capture an artist at a distinct point of change in his career.


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When Donny Hathaway, Thelonious Monk And Neil Young Hit A Turning Point

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We'd like to welcome to our stage, Neil Young.


BLOCK: It's the fall of 1970, Neil Young takes the stage in a small club in Washington, D.C.

NEIL YOUNG: Hi, folks.

BLOCK: And his career is turning in a new direction. His folk rock group Buffalo Springfield has dissolved. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are on the way out, and Neil Young is going solo.


BLOCK: This recording, "Live at the Cellar Door," is one of three live albums from three different artists, all from about the same time period and all recently released. They show musicians at turning points in their careers. And joining me to talk more about them is our music critic, Tom Moon. Tom, welcome back.

TOM MOON, BYLINE: Great to be with you.

BLOCK: And, Tom, we hear Neil Young here performing in 1970, at the small club in Washington, these are warm-up dates for a gig he's about to do at Carnegie Hall.

MOON: Yes. He booked three nights at the Cellar Door, which was this little, tiny, almost a shoebox of a room. Essentially, it was for his purpose of getting used to being a completely solo performer.


BLOCK: Such a great intimate feeling for these songs, Tom, I mean, just Neil Young, either on guitar or on piano on some of the songs. And it's very raw and unpolished.

MOON: That's right. With Buffalo Springfield and CSNY, he was playing arenas and big places. And this is him kind of orienting himself to a different scale entirely. He's thinking very small, both in terms of the instrumentation and also in terms of the songs are simple. A song like "Tell Me Why" there, very, very earnest. And using a very straightforward melody to express vulnerability, which, of course, his voice just takes you to that immediately.

BLOCK: Oh, yeah, that haunting high sound of his. He does his song "Cinnamon Girl" on this live album on piano.


MOON: He's not at all an accomplished pianist. But he's thought very carefully about how to translate what he usually hears and what he'd written to the piano, and it kind of works. It's beautiful. It's different. It changes the tone of the tune, I think.

BLOCK: So that's "Neil Young: Live at the Cellar Door" solo in 1970. Let's listen to a recording from one year later, 1971, another artist at a turning point, and it's the late R&B and soul singer Donny Hathaway.


CORNISH: And, Tom, this is Donny Hathaway from a new box set. It's called "Never My Love," four CDs and one of those four is this live show from New York, from the Greenwich Village Club, The Bitter End, in October of 1971.

MOON: That's right. And that was a three-night run. Those who really love Donny Hathaway might know some of that material appeared in 1972 on the album called "Donny Hathaway: Live." And they had a lot of material left over. That's what's represented on this box and it's just wonderful to hear.

BLOCK: And, Tom, he's doing a lot of cover songs on this live collection, right? This is, of course, Carol King's "You've Got A Friend." What else?

MOON: Yeah. And interesting covers, I mean, sort of obvious, I guess. In 1971 if you were singing R&B and soul music, you couldn't escape Marvin Gaye and "What's Going On," and he does a magic version of that song. But he also does John Lennon's "Jealous Guy." And he does a wonderful version of the Blood, Sweat & Tears hit "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know."


BLOCK: And, Tom, this album, 1971, came eight years before Donny Hathaway died. Was this the peak of his popularity?

MOON: I think it was the peak. He had hits with Roberta Flack after this. The record "Donny Hathaway & Roberta Flack" came out in '72. But he very quickly stops writing and the stuff in the studio that follows is a lot of instrumental stuff. He really stopped recording. He ends up having only three studio records and the live record that were issued during his lifetime. So it's kind of a loss. We don't know what we didn't get.


BLOCK: OK. So that's Donny Hathaway live at The Bitter End in 1971. And, Tom, our last live record that we're going to talk about captures an artist at the end of his career, and that's Thelonious Monk from 1969.


BLOCK: And this is a concert in Paris at the Salle Pleyel. And, Tom, this recording is just a few years before Thelonious Monk stops performing altogether.

MOON: Yeah. He had also just lost his longtime contract with Columbia Records and that marks the end of what he shared with the world, in terms of new studio recordings. And I feel in this that he's trying very hard to be the steadfast warrior of jazz that he'd been for much of the '60s. I mean, he was really an influential part of jazz for such a long time and he very quickly disappears from live playing altogether.


BLOCK: It is great also on this album, Tom, to hear solo Thelonious Monk at the piano. We're listening here to "Crepuscule with Nellie."

MOON: Yeah. On these solo pieces, it seems to me that he's gathering the whole history of jazz. There's references to Harlem stride-style playing and his own harmonic ideas that are melded together in this wonderful way.


BLOCK: I've been talking with Tom Moon about three live albums: Thelonious Monk, "Paris 1969," Donny Hathaway's "Live at The Bitter End, 1971" from the box set "Never My Love: The Anthology," and "Neil Young: Live At the Cellar Door" from 1970. Tom, thanks so much.

MOON: Thanks for having me.

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