Monday, October 16, 2017

Thelonious Monk at 100

The hundredth anniversary of the birth of Thelonious Monk was widely celebrated in the press. Didn't you see the article by Ethan Iverson, jazz scholar and pianist for The Bad Plus, in the New Yorker? Iverson posted a more casual and extensive series of articles on his website, do the m@th, including an annotated discography.

Monk's music is well-loved by musicians—Iverson observes that more than sixty of his compositions are still in the jazz repertoire—and his personality is well-loved by journalists. He was the ultimate "cool cat," with dark glasses, pointy goatee, funny hats, and strange habits, such as, for example, dancing in circles while his band mates were soloing. The jury is out as to whether Monk was schizophrenic, autistic, or just plain weird. If you get a chance to see the documentary film Straight, No Chaser, take a look and decide for yourself. 

Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy spent some time in Monk's band, and he wrote down some of Monk's words of advice, underlining the key phrases:

Just because you're not a drummer doesn't mean you don't have to keep time.

Stop playing all those weird notes, play the melody.

You've got to dig it to dig it, you dig?

Let's lift the bandstand!

Don't play the piano part. I'm playing that.

The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good.

Don't play everything. What you don't play can be more important than what you do play.

They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along and spoil it.

A genius is the one most like himself.

As for the music, the best way to become familiar with that is to listen to it, hence the importance of the discography. Iverson's is so inclusive as to be forbidding, but it's useful as a point of reference.

Years ago, a friend of mine who was just trying to get into jazz bought Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music. He hated it so much he gave it to me, unasked.

I didn't like it much, either. Iverson remarks: "As a set, these have the weakest performances in the Monk canon." I guess that explains it.

Monk's piano style isn't difficult to describe: lots of clinkers, discords, repeated poundy chords and downward whole tone runs. On the other hand, Monk has written some of the most lovely melodies in the jazz canon. " 'Round Midnight" is probably the most often-recorded jazz tune of the last half-century. Other classics include "Ruby, My Dear," "Pannonica," "Ask Me Now," and "Reflections." Monk also penned a large number of mid-tempo tunes that are staples of the jazz repertoire. These include "Four in One," "Nutty," "Blue Monk," "Monk's Dream," "Tinkle, Tinkle," "Hackensack," "Well, You Needn't," "In Walked Bud," and "Straight, No Chaser."

I've heard these tunes a thousand times, performed in a variety of instrumental settings, and I recognize them as Monk tunes immediately, though I couldn't put names to most of them. I used to spend a lot of time listening to the two-CD set of solo Monk recordings on Columbia, on which originals and standards are interspersed. As a result, I'm likely to identify "Sweet and Lovely," a popular song from 1931, or "Dinah," as Monk tunes, too. He infuses them with tinges of Monkish gravity, and reminds us that the originality of his musical world might draw as much from the "stride" era from which it emerged  as it does from the "bebop" he helped to create.

The common wisdom is that once Monk appeared on the cover of Time magazine and signed with Columbia, the quality of his recordings declined a little. Nevertheless, the neophyte could do worse than to pick up a copy of  Straight, No Chaser or Monk's Dream or Underground. Along with Monk Alone: the Complete Solo Recordings 1962-1968.

Throughout Monk's career other musicians found it a challenge to solo in front of his unorthodox piano phrasing. Then again, many performers have recorded albums with their own bands devoted exclusively to Monk's tunes, and several of these have become classics, too. Let me recommend Steve Lacy's Reflections (1958), Carmen McRae Sings Monk (1990), Sonny Fortune's Four in One (1994), and Fred Hersch's solo piano offering Thelonious (1997).

In a recent article devoted to Monk's career, Hersch remarked:

Monk’s works, some of them cryptic and difficult and others just plain fun, are designed as springboards for improvisation. Everything he wrote fits in a book of around a hundred pages—compare that to the volumes of work by Mozart, Bach or Beethoven! Yet his canonic compositions, which are subjected to reimaginings in almost every music style, still retain their essential “Monkishness.” His tightly constructed themes and challenging harmonic progressions take years to master.

Some of Monk's compositions are hardly more than rhythmic chants supporting brief and childlike melodies. But then the rhythms shift, the melody drops (or gains) a note, and things take on an entirely new harmonic perspective. Yes, "springboards for improvisation," but also catchy in themselves. Two of my favorites along these lines are the minimalist "Evidence" (check out the version by Lacy and Don Cherry here) and the relentless "Locomotion." (Listen here.) 

On the other end of the spectrum is the haunting "Round Midnight," which helped transform Miles Davis into a superstar. Here's a recording of Monk doing a solo rendition of that tune near the end of his career, in 1969.

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