Thelonious Monk

TrackAlbum
Straight, No ChaserThelonious Monk Blue Note Sessions
Brilliant CornersBrilliant Corners
Well, You Needn'tMonk's Music
Ruby, My Dear        The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings
(with John Coltrane)
Crepuscule With Nellie      Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane
at Carnegie Hall
EvidenceThelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane
at Carnegie Hall
EpistrophyThelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane
at Carnegie Hall
Round MidnightThelonious Himself
Monk's MoodThelonious Himself
Blue MonkLive at the It Club
Bright Mississippi
Live at the Jazz Workshop

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Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

“I say, play your own way. Don’t play what the public wants. You play what you want and let the public pick up on what you’re doing. Even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.” Thelonious Monk

Monk is the second most recorded jazz composer ever. Only Duke Ellington has had more recordings made of his compositions. Duke wrote over 1,000 songs. Monk wrote around 70.

His compositions are unique, so far from the norm that they almost stand alone as their own genre of music. A little bit of hyperbole to say that really – but if you can say that of anyone you can say that of him. Ofttimes casual listeners of jazz find sections of his work harsh, even unlistenable. It wasn’t really, it was just that new, that different, and that foreign to their ears. He was so far ahead of everyone else that nobody could copy him, even when they tried.

His playing style was aggressive in some ways, often seemingly attacking the keys. But he also alternated those attacks with abrupt and even dramatic silences and had the ability to go as soft as anyone. Monk is one the the few musicians who truly is an original. Nobody was like him before he showed up, and really nobody who came after him followed in his footsteps.

Thelonious Monk was born in North Carolina, but moved to Manhattan in 1922 when he was five years old. He started playing piano the next year and was largely self taught, although he did study for awhile at the Juilliard School of Music. He toured with gospel groups in his mid teens but started playing more jazz by his late teens. By his mid twenties he had become the house pianist at Minton’s. He probably appeared on a recording by a very minor musician named Jerry Newman in 1941; it’s up for debate whether it’s him or not. But he really didn’t begin to hit his stride till Mary Lou Williams began to mentor a lot of the bebop crowd, Monk especially some say, and he joined the Coleman Hawkins Quartet in 1944. In reality though, he didn’t really get going til he was around 40, a rarity for a jazz musician, or actually any musician.

You’d think with only 70 songs written getting it down to 10 would be fairly easy. I got stuck at 16. After listening to them over and over again I wound up at 11, and realized I could go no further. So 11 it is. Another oddity, actually somewhat common among jazz musicians, is that he often recorded a song a couple different times over his 23 year playing career. As it really does matter in the decision, I’m referencing specific versions and even comparing them to other versions while explaining why it has made my Toppermost.

The only track I have on my list before the Riverside years was his 1951 version of Straight, No Chaser from his Blue Note Sessions and/or Genius of Modern Music Vol.2. Now a lot of folks prefer later versions, but there is something about this early version where he is maybe looser and not so encumbered with the burden of being Monk. It doesn’t hurt the song opens with Art Blakey’s series of rim shots and has a really short but cool Milt Jackson solo in the middle. Monk’s solo is very straight ahead for him; the versions from later years were less fluid, faster maybe with the notes coming quicker and seemingly the notes more rigid. I like this early recording mostly because he isn’t trying to break new ground with every striking of a key. He isn’t the genius yet, just a piano player named Thelonious.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s Monk was somewhat revered by his peers and critics but the mainstream public still seemed a bit confused about what he was doing. His stock was so low in 1955, Riverside was able to buy out his contract from Prestige for $108.24.

The he delivered a decade of almost unmatched brilliance.

His third Riverside album was Brilliant Corners. The title track from the album might be the most complex work in Monk’s catalog; for my money there isn’t any doubt. The band along with Monk included other jazz pantheon members Sonny Rollins on sax, Oscar Pettiford on bass and Max Roach on drums. Trumpet player Ernie Henry wasn’t exactly a slouch either. The piece deviated from any sort of standard structure as it uses an 8-Bar A Section, a 7-Bar B section and then a modified 7-Bar A section along with having a double-time theme in each second chorus. The band tried to play it 25 times in the studio before they gave up and patched the song together from the various takes. Monk was never happy with the song feeling it didn’t capture what was inside his head. It’s an amazing work and heralded what was to come.

Quite honestly it would be hard to not have a tune that featured John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins as a double front-line of tenor sax players not be outstanding. With Art Blakey thrown in on drums and Monk on piano as well, it was certainly an all-star band. Unlike the complexity of the previous tune, Well, You Needn’t from 1957’s Monk’s Music gave the players a chance to breathe within Monk’s composition. The solo’s of Trane and Hawk are far apart within the piece but their impact is still amazing without needing to contrast with each other. And the Monk solo at then end is a bit different than the music that came before it as there are some silences and runs you just didn’t see coming.

From the same year, Ruby, My Dear from The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings with John Coltrane beats out other versions of the composition by a hair. The genius of this one is he lets it be a Coltrane showcase. Trane plays a long romantic solo that really moves away from the established melody before eventually finding its way home. And to Monk’s credit he follows Trane’s lead, even in his own solo. For the record though, you might also want to search out the version from about the same time period with Coleman Hawkins taking the sax part, a fairly long version from the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival as well as a version from Solo Monk without a sax solo.

Also that year came three gems that were lost for almost 50 years. Only discovered again in 2005, the 1957 Voice of America recording, although long known to probably exist, which wound up being released as Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall is by far the most amazing of the many collaborations between the two artists.

Crepuscule With Nellie has an amazing melody that is expressive without seeming excited. Monk spends the first half of the piece setting the theme for the band to follow, and Trane plays the melody straight without any Trane flourishes, allowing Monk to play around him showcasing his piano. Just a short four minutes, it is quite beautiful.

Evidence was another composition that has shown up several times on a Monk album. I prefer this one because of the early interplay between the two giants that starts to deviate when about a quarter of the way in the two of them seem to be playing two different compositions, while somehow the rest of the band seems to be backing both of them.

Epistrophy only appeared on a few albums, a very early one of Monk’s and this one. It was composed by Monk and Kenny Clarke in 1942 and has rightly been called the first modern jazz composition and a very early building block in the Bebop movement. Its first section is based on a pattern of alternating chords just a semitone (the smallest musical interval commonly used in Western music) apart. In 1942, that must have been mind blowing. It was still pretty impressive in 1957.

Also in 1957, which at this point you might have realized was an amazing year for Monk, came my favorite version of Round Midnight from Thelonious Himself. Now, most people prefer the more powerful version of Monk’s most famous composition. One from the late 1960s tends to make a lot of people’s lists, but it always sounded angry to me. The 1957 version is soft without any of the signature tricks or notes that symbolize Monk. Because of this it tends to be heartbreakingly beautiful as opposed to the often vengeful sound of the composition.

Also from the album is my favorite version of Monk’s Mood, although Thelonious Himself isn’t quite honest as Monk is hardly by himself. No, bassist Wilbur Ware and Trane assist on the piece. Monk does play it as a solo piece for about two minutes before Ware shows up with just a few notes and Trane delivers one of his more tender solos. Much like the previous song, the piece comes off as heartbreaking, and the interplay between him and Trane is amazing.

The last two compositions are from 1964. By that time, Monk was playing with a band that included Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, Larry Gales on bass and Ben Riley on drums. And no, unless you are a diehard jazzhead, you really shouldn’t be concerned if you have no idea who they were.

Blue Monk comes from Live at the It Club, recorded in October in Los Angeles. It’s an amazing album by the way, and depending on the day my first or second favorite live Monk album. The second (and yes, eleventh song as I cheated) is Bright Mississippi from Live at the Jazz Workshop, a November date in San Francisco. It’s based on some melody and chord changes from Sweet Georgia Brown and is as much as an upbeat romp as the song that inspired it. Rouse gives a great solo, which leads in to Monk who does his usual contrast style of playing with odd pauses. Gales than gives one of the longest bass solos ever that didn’t bore me (and I play bass) before Riley finishes with his drum solo.

A couple things are going on here. First off, with such a small songbook, Monk played some of the same pieces on several albums and as you might have noticed from my comments, he continued to find a way to keep playing them differently. More important to me though is in this phase he took three solid, but nothing special, sort of musicians and stretched their game out to otherwise unknown levels. Like any great athlete or artist he made his teammates better, even if he did have the tendency to stop in the middle of his playing at gigs, get up from his piano and start to dance a little because one of his fellow musicians was moving him. Thelonious Monk moved to sounds most of us never even dream of hearing.

 

The Official Thelonious Monk Website

Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz

Thelonious Monk biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #329

1 Comment

  1. Ilkka Jauramo
    Aug 7, 2014

    Monk was a jazz musician who needed to be seen, not only heard. I remember his distinctive clothes and show artist manners in front of an enthusiastic public better than the music itself.

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