My New Yorker Culture Desk essay “Think of Monk” is a well-edited aerial view. What follows is a ramble though the underbrush of musicianly detail, stuff I thought about while working on the general audience essay.
The rich discography mostly divides neatly into label: Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside, Columbia, and Black Lion. Jazz buffs know this progression intimately and can debate the pros and cons of each era with flair.
Blue Note: The person who got Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff interested in Monk was Lorraine Gordon (then Lorraine Lion and married to Alfred), who still hangs out at her joint the Village Vanguard a couple of times a week and celebrates her 95th birthday on Sunday. Apparently Lorraine was the one who gave Monk the sobriquet, “The High Priest.”
Monk’s first studio tracks as a leader are short, pithy, and packed with information. They are some of the most crucial 78s ever recorded but I rarely return to their raw wonder, with the notable exception of the bonafide masterpiece “Carolina Moon.” If I discover an experienced musician hasn’t heard “Carolina Moon,” I can’t resist stopping the conversation and cueing it up.
As a set, these have the weakest performances in the Monk canon. While not all the horn players are that good, everybody gets solo time. (Fortunately, usually the piano solos are the longest and they are always the best.) Some of the hardest Monk tunes are from this era, and several of them would never return in Monk’s book. A couple of “concertos” with the piano in the midst of horns like “‘Round Midnight” and “Thelonious” remain compelling and unique to the first era. One of Monk’s greatest collaborators was Milt Jackson, and their work together on these Blue Notes is in a category of one. Two other highlights are the trio standards “April in Paris” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” where the band sounds comfortable and Monk shows off a lot of chops.
Prestige: Not quite LPs yet, the few Prestige tracks produced by Bob Weinstock were 78s or collected on 10-inch before varied repackaging. The issues remain a bit confusing.
There is no single “greatest Monk album,” but if I had to pick just one for that desert island I’d grab what became the 12-inch LP Trio with Gary Mapp and either Max Roach or Art Blakey in late 1952 and “Blue Monk” with Percy Heath and Blakey from 1954. Sometimes the piano is really out of tune but that tintinnabulation works just fine for the High Priest, who deals like a motherfucker on some of his best compositions plus darkly stomping/striding “Sweet and Lovely,” “These Foolish Things” in clanging seconds and the first of many profound ruminations on “Just a Gigolo.”
Percy Heath turns the time around in his bass solo on “Blue Monk.” (It’s a great solo otherwise, Tootie Heath told me that Charles Mingus told Percy, “I wish I could play the blues like you.”) Monk ignores the mistake, keeps counting accurately, and wrong-foots the rhythm section on the head out. A small detail that says something about something but I have no idea what. Max Roach on “Bemsha Swing” is impossibly great: Among other details, he bangs a top cymbal exactly once. But who is playing out-of-tempo claves on “Bye-ya?” Gary Mapp is on no other recordings. Apparently he was a policeman first and bassist second, and occasionally you can tell from his exceptionally wrong notes. But, warts and all, the final product is simply transcendent. It’s probably not just my favorite Monk album; it might simply be my favorite album, period.
On the Prestige band tracks Monk is now working with much better soloists. Sonny Rollins is superlative. Try his chorus on “Let’s Call This”: What! Ben Street pointed out to me that Monk’s comping for Rollins on “More Than You Know” is in the hall of fame of reharmonization, with Monk’s solo being pure gold as well. Stanley Crouch told me that he thought “Friday the Thirteenth” was one of the greatest things ever recorded: Not content with one time through the monochrome, Stanley would play it over and over. There’s a picture of Rollins with Monk and Roy Haynes at the Five Spot a few years later, if only one of those nights had been recorded!
Julius Watkins gets a star turn on french horn, that’s fun too. The tracks with Frank Foster and Ray Copeland are also good, especially “Hackensack” with unruly Curly Russell and Art Blakey. Really, there is nothing from the short Prestige era that isn’t top drawer.
The most famous Prestige session is Christmas Eve 1954 with Miles Davis and Milt Jackson. If you haven’t dealt with that piece of jazz lore and legend, stop reading this page and go listen to the two takes of “Bag’s Groove.” Monk doesn’t comp behind Miles’s perfect melodic blues over dancing Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke. After bringing in the avant heat behind effusive Milt Jackson, Monk gets his own astonishing choruses. “Spring Swing” and two takes of “The Man I Love” also essential for a thousand reasons. There’s a certain amount of misinformation surrounding some of this music. “Spring Swing” is no more a “modal” piece than Denzil Best’s “Wee,” both are just great diatonic heads for rhythm changes. When Monk stops playing on “The Man I Love” (take 2) it doesn’t automatically mean he got lost. The “cue” Miles eventually plays is pretty abstract and more or less simultaneous with Monk’s re-entrance, so I think Davis is just trying to save the take, not show Monk where the form was. The latest I heard was that Charlie Persip (who was in the studio that day) said that a beer fell over in the studio and Monk was trying to control the damage.
Riverside: Under Orrin Keepnews, Monk recorded extensively. I got the big box in high school right when it came out. Keepnews’s notes are informative but also distractingly egotistical. Still, in terms of sheer number of hours of superb and diverse music, the Riverside era triumphs.
Plays Duke Ellington. Apparently the first two discs of “covers” were Keepnews’s idea, and bless him for it. Monk plays Ellington must be about the first and still one of the best examples of a concept album. The gait between Monk, Pettiford, and Clarke is spectacular. Monk’s touch is more delicate than usual here, and Clarke whispers along on brushes. Each track is beautiful in its own way, I’m always struck by something new. During my most recent listen I could not believe the first wildly abstract phrases of “Black and Tan Fantasy.”
The Unique Thelonious Monk. Perhaps not as rarefied as the Duke album but still essential. The opening “Liza” is Monk at his most explosive: Many years later Paul Motian would begin On Broadway Vol. 1 with a similar statement of “Liza.” “Just You, Just Me” has an arrangement that has gone on to be canonical. “Tea for Two” is harmonized with the progression from “Skippy.” The full-arm black key cluster after white key chords on “You Are Too Beautiful” is pure Thelonious.
Brilliant Corners. A famous session that is a bit rough around the edges. Sonny Rollins is masterful but most of the others have trouble nailing every detail. For me the celeste on “Pannonica” and tympani on “Bemsha Swing” help lose the focus. The title track is heavily edited and it shows. Not sure if the rhythm section of Pettiford and Roach are on always on the same page for the very long “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-Are.” I feel bad critiquing such extraordinary music, but I’m working against a certain tradition of jazz reviewer that prizes experimentation over feel. (Progress is usually the process of making better mistakes.) The solo piano “I Surrender Dear” is divine.
Thelonious Himself. Along with the Duke trio set, Himself is Monk at his most tender. There are spectacular ballads (“I Should Care” is famously quite deconstructed) and a blues lesson “Functional” that Monk himself compared to James P. Johnson, before John Coltrane and Wilbur Ware show up for a rhapsodic rendition of “Monk’s Mood.” Monk’s connection to European classical music can easily be overemphasized, but it is hard not to look at this rubato, drummerless, cadenza-filled “Monk’s Mood” as a response to modernist European chamber music. (Tellingly, when Monk played Carnegie Hall with Coltrane, he began the set with this arrangement.)
Monk’s Music. There’s two essential cuts on this acclaimed album. The blank-faced hymn “Abide with Me” does a few things at once. It confirms Monk’s relationship to both church music and four-part chorale writing. It also satisfies Keepnews’s request for a “new Monk tune,” for the piece is by the 19th-century Englishman William Henry Monk. I don’t believe in God, but I suppose if anything could change my mind, it is listening to Coleman Hawkins, the “man who invented the tenor saxophone,” play the bass line to “Abide with Me.”
On Twitter, Pieter Voorhees hipped to how “Abide with Me” is straight out of the Book of Common Prayer. I didn’t know one could look it up so easily! Indeed, this is exactly what Ray Copeland, Gigi Gryce, John Coltrane, and Hawkins play:
Hawkins also is featured quartet on “Ruby My Dear,” a stunning track that somehow I’d overlooked until recently. Hawkins was an early Monk supporter, and “Ruby” shows how well he understood Monk. According to Robin D.G. Kelley’s book, after Hawkins died, Monk played this recording “Ruby My Dear” over and over for days.
Wilbur Ware, one of very greatest bassists by any standard, barely plays a single correct note on “Ruby My Dear.” In general Ware and Blakey seem a bit perplexed by the rest of the music on the date. The full band performances are very long and filled with mistakes, “Epistrophy” in particular is hard to listen to. I question the conventional wisdom that this is one of the greatest Monk records overall. However, certain details are fascinating, like Ware’s smart harmonic analysis of “Well, You Needn’t” (he adds an E-flat chord to the fourth bar of the A sections) and Blakey’s blurring of tempo on “Crepuscule with Nellie.”
Mulligan Meets Monk. Gerry Mulligan was a great connector in this era, recording meetings with all sorts of cool cats from Johnny Hodges to Paul Desmond. (Both of those discs are beautiful.) This is the only Monk album where a horn player plays counterpoint on the melodies and backgrounds to the piano solos. Sometime it just seems like noodling but other times it works fairly well, especially the nice breathy baritone half-notes and mild syncopations during Monk’s improvisations. Mulligan is swinging and Ware and Shadow Wilson are in their element. Overall quite strong but I admit this is one I rarely return to. The “one-off” quartets with Gigi Gryce or Clark Terry have more to offer for this listener.
Thelonious in Action and Misterioso. This is the second Five Spot quartet, Johnny Griffin took Coltrane’s place. Griffin plays an amazing amount of notes per square inch. When everything is in alignment, he’s one of the great virtuoso pleasures of jazz, for example Introducing Johnny Griffin with incandescent Max Roach. However he’s not perfect for Monk. Coltrane could play all those fast notes as well but they sat inside the piano comping. Griffin is just on top. Roy Haynes is the real star of the these live performances, although he should really be louder in the mix. Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s own albums are a surprisingly successful blend of East meets West, but for me he plays better at Carnegie Hall with old-school swinger Shadow Wilson than at the Five Spot with burning Roy Haynes. Still, these two albums are undeniable jazz classics, and for many were a gateway into digging the High Priest. I’m complaining about Griffin but he’s still a hell of thing here.
Clark Terry: In Orbit. Two Riverside stars meet in a provocative album that I review extensively elsewhere on DTM. “It would be one thing if Terry had played a bunch of Monk tunes or repertoire specially tailored for the date. Instead the set list is essentially what Terry would play with anybody. If In Orbit has classic status, that status is testament to Terry’s grace under pressure.”
The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall. The tenor sax chair was given it’s final answer with magnificent Charlie Rouse. Although not on the original release, check out how great Rouse sounds in a quartet “Rhythm-a-ning” from this concert: Unquestionably a better fit than Griffin (who recorded “Rhythm-a-ning” with Monk a few months earlier). It’s not that Rouse plays all that “motivic” or “abstract”: He doesn’t. Charlie Rouse is a straight-ahead master. Full stop. But Rouse’s non-avant lines somehow interface correctly with Monk’s wild comping and general aesthetic. Melissa Aldana also pointed out to me how hip Rouse’s could be when playing Monk’s themes. Left to his own devices (in the documentary Straight No Chaser, Monk refuses to tell Rouse what notes from the full chart of “Boo-Boo’s Birthday” to play), Rouse makes up some fun and funky (Aldana’s word) solutions for putting those wild melodies on the tenor.
On the full band pieces, Hall Overton (who is a special interest of mine), transcribed Monk’s voicings accurately but doesn’t do much else other than orchestrate the piano solo on “Little Rootie Tootie.” It’s a classic record with a few star soloists getting a rare chance to sing out with the great composer — Pepper Adams sounds wonderful on “Rootie Tootie” — but the later gig Big Band and Quartet in Concert has a little more of Overton’s own interesting imagination in evidence.
Five by Monk by Five. Sam Jones and Art Taylor are heard both at Town Hall and this quintet date. They are two of the greatest but, perhaps similarly to Johnny Griffin, don’t seem to really be all the way in the Monk headspace, at least in my admittedly academic and historically distant judgement. (Hyland Harris reminds me that I better listen to A.T.’s left hand at Town Hall again.) It’s a thrill to hear Thad Jones with Monk but — in perhaps a minority opinion — this quintet date doesn’t fully gel into an outstandingly memorable confluence of energies. All the pieces are quite long. There is no obvious narrative drama in most of Monk’s small ensemble music, it stays pretty much the same dynamic at all times, so when there is more than one horn the pieces have the potential to extend to unwelcome lengths. The coolest track might be the fastest, “Jackie-ing,” which is so beautiful and strange and puts Thad Jones’s imagination into high gear. Later on the quartet with Rouse and Frankie Dunlop would be definitive for this piece.
Alone in San Francisco. This might be Monk’s nicest piano in an American studio recording. “Pannonica” gets for me the definitive reading, ruminative and swinging, with wonderful and conventional (!) swirling arpeggios in the in final bridge. Another key track is “Remember,” which begins with Monk playing the melody in the left hand under intentionally awkward chords. Then he swings out. This “Remember” was recorded four months before the classic version that opens Hank Mobley’s Soul Station. American music was kicking so much righteous ass in those days.
Thelonious Monk at the Blackhawk. West Coast lions Harold Land and Joe Gordon sit in with Monk’s quartet. This live date has a nice vibe, although the crowd noise is astonishingly loud in the mix. The real reason to hear Blackhawk is Billy Higgins’s only recorded session with Monk. The phrase “lift the bandstand” is attributed to Monk, but for me no one can “lift” a group quite like Higgins. It’s a jam session — nobody but Rouse knows the music that well — but the pure joy radiating out between the drummer and pianist squashes all complaints. John Ore is good too. Along with Butch Warren and Larry Gales, Ore is one of three excellent but comparatively unheralded Monk ’60s bassists who “got it.” Swing hard, don’t forget the pitches but don’t worry too much about them either. Just a little elegant, but not too much.
Two Hours of Thelonious (or Monk in France and Monk in Italy). Rouse and Ore were perfect. The group just needed a drummer, and they found him in Frankie Dunlop. Before Monk, Dunlop played with Maynard Ferguson, afterwards with Lionel Hampton. For Modern Drummer, Dunlop talked about Monk and big band music (especially Jimmie Lunceford) in one of the most interesting interviews ever done by a Monk sideman. (The best parts of this interview can be found at Todd Bishop’s site.)
There was something else that Dunlop had besides swing. Something a little surreal in the language. It’s not totally slick and level-headed. There’s a hint of clunky and disorganized, like a little kid beating on pots and pans.
Rouse isn’t so clunky but he’s not afraid of clunk, either. Ore clunks away beautifully. These are Monk musicians!
Orrin Keepnews is rather dismissive of these two European gigs in the big booklet that accompanies the Riverside box simply because he had nothing to do with producing them. (Indeed, his partner Bill Grauer might have been a bit sly and tricky about getting the tapes.) However, in high school, I vividly remember repeatedly going through the complete Riverside set, and in the end I definitely listened most to the concluding live quartets. It’s perfect jazz: modernist, bluesy, soulful, weird, and so damn swinging. The quartet is a “thing,” an organism that radiates correctly and naturally. The group is also audibly excited to be in Europe playing in superb concert halls to packed audiences that love and respect their music.
Columbia: Conventional wisdom says Monk’s big breakthrough to a major label also was time of retrenchment and ennui. Even though Monk’s quartet with Rouse was one of the great groups of all time, I concur, at least in terms of the studio records. There’s nothing really wrong about any of them, except perhaps occasionally the tracks run long with too many solos. Any one of them is still a good introduction into Monk, and they served that function beautifully. After reading the Culture Desk essay yesterday, Chuck Mitchell (who oversaw several TBP records) sent me the following note:
At age 12, Christmas 1963 or thereabouts, my parents gifted me with my first “record player”—mono—and a selection of albums they thought represented “good music” at the time. I can’t recall what was in that first batch, but a couple of months later, I came home from school and my mother gave me a package, saying, “I saw this guy on the cover of Time Magazine, and they said he was good, so here you go.”
The album was “Monk’s Dream,” and as they say, my life was changed forever. To this day, I choose not to explain the magical hold this recording has for me. Fifty-four years later, I know every note and I can sing every solo and even bash out the Dunlop drum parts on whatever table is around, should I be so moved.
It’s only when you compare the studio quartets to the live documents that the studio documents seem lackluster. Perhaps part of the problem is simply that the albums weren’t produced very well. Teo Macero is a crucial figure in jazz history, and Monk liked him enough to write a song for him, “Teo.” But the pianos aren’t in tune and the sonorities aren’t so well blended together. Compare a Monk record of this era to a Macero-produced Miles Davis album of the era: The Miles records generally sound better, yet the engineers, studios, and pianos are the same.
The best Riverside records were partly the result of Keepnews staying in the ring with Monk, taking the blows, returning with a jab, and finally getting it done. For the first few years at Columbia, Macero just let Monk be. Monk seemed to like that better, but the catalog doesn’t show that Macero’s “hands off” approach automatically made better records. However, when Macero suddenly took the reins for the last record, the Oliver Nelson big-band Monk’s Blues, he ended up producing the one Monk album almost nobody likes. (Kelley’s book is highly informative about Monk’s final year or two at Columbia.)
Of the quartet studio records, Monk’s Dream still seems to be the freshest, with Dunlop’s drums exploding out of the speakers on the opening track. There are good things on everything else, perhaps especially the standards, and the final Underground has a bevy of beautiful new tunes.
There were two non-quartet Columbia discs that rank as essential.
Big Band and Quartet in Concert. Overton is back and lets himself extend out into Monk’s world a bit more, although I think almost everything the horns plays is still based on a Monk piano part. Butch Warren is even better than John Ore, an eager swinger that creates a perfect “roar” downstairs with Dunlop. The new tune is “Oska T.,” which swirls obsessively in A-flat. It’s 1963, modal jazz was clearly here to stay, so Monk made sure to have a personal take on a long number based on one chord. Since there were no recordings of this tune yet, the backgrounds might indeed be entirely Overton’s invention. Martin Williams wrote up watching a rehearsal for DownBeat in an article that has some insight into the Overton-Monk dynamic. (At one point Overton auditions chords for Monk, Monk doesn’t say anything.) Main soloists Rouse, Thad Jones, and Phil Woods deliver the goods throughout the whole gig. For me this set is superior to Town Hall in almost every way.
Solo Monk. Monk touched on stride in his solo work before but “Dinah” couldn’t be more explicit. “Dinah’s” lyrics refer to “Carolina” – could that be another nod to James P. Johnson and Johnson’s famous stride test piece “Carolina Shout?” Great version of “Ask Me Now.” The whole album is thoughtful and loving, although if you put a gun to my head I might rank it the least of the five solo albums overall.
Although not released until after Monk stopped performing, two of the Columbia live quartets are two of my favorites.
Live in Tokyo. With Rouse, Warren, and Dunlop in a far foreign land. I suppose this is my favorite Monk working band, and this is well-recorded and inspired. A couple of days later they were captured for some truly extraordinary video mentioned in my New Yorker article. If you need one album from Monk from the 60s, I’d recommend Live in Tokyo.
Live at the It Club. The next rhythm team of Larry Gales and Ben Riley was really great too. Maybe more than anybody since Wilbur Ware, Gales could jump in and “comment” on Monk during the piano solos, for example on “Rhythm-a-ning.” Ben Riley was a deep swinger who would go on to be the most popular and frequently recorded musician of those who had a “mostly Monk” association during the ’60s. At the It Club they were new to the gig but sound well up on what the music needed. Slightly out of tune piano, tough tenor, big swing, a rare “Gallop’s Gallop,” terrific date.
I have a sentimental attachment to Live at the It Club because I listened to it a lot in high school. In fact, Nick Hornby-style, I gave a mix tape of my favorite It Club jams to the girl I took to prom. That was the LP twofer, which edited out most of the bass and drum solos. I didn’t notice those edits at the time. While I can hear the splices now, I am not all sure that restoring the bass and drum solos to the CD issue was a smart move. For me Warren and especially Dunlop are better soloists than Gales and Riley, and I don’t seriously object to the extended performances on Tokyo. One nice solo a set is enough for Gales and Riley.
Black Lion: Gerald Early’s striking essay “Thelonious Monk: Gothic Provincial” argues that Monk more or less declined after the 1940’s, and declares the reason for this decline to be institutional racism. Robin D.G. Kelley suggests something similar, that Monk just got tired of the fight. Whatever the case, the great Thelonious Monk did have a stunning last act, a final salvo: Monk recorded about two dozen trio and solo tracks, summing up his legacy, on November 15, 1971, in London for producer Alan Bates. The sound is bright, even glossy. This “European” engineering shouldn’t be attractive but it kind of works, and the music is so good that it frankly washes away most of the Columbia studio material. If I put on my critic hat, I’m compelled to note that Al McKibbon is no John Ore, Butch Warren, or Larry Gales. Frankly I wish Monk and Art Blakey had recorded duo. But when I take off that hat I’m just happy that any of this happened at all.
Occasionally you can hear Monk remembering how a song goes or fussing with a detail. But, especially solo, the tracks gain momentum as they go along and we get to hear a giant show us how it is done one last time. “Trinkle Tinkle” puts the “sheets of sound” theme over Harlem bass. “My Melancholy Baby” is devastating. “Baby” was written in 1912, five years before Monk was born. Listening to this pianist play that song in 1971 London teaches something profound about 20th-century music. I hear the whole thing, from World War I to Nixon on TV. From the trio set, a short, mostly melody “Criss Cross” is especially pleasing. It circles and circles but doesn’t get boring. Monk was “minimalism” before that movement had a name.
The rest of Monk on record:
At some point it would really be nice to collect all the Jerry Newman (and others?) recordings from Minton’s into a well-produced box set. For now, the two CDs Thelonious Monk: After Hours at Minton’s (Definitive) and Don Byas: Midnight at Minton’s (High Note) seem to have most of the tracks with Monk. It’s fabulous listening. Herbie Nichols said he would rather listen to Monk play “Boston” than anybody else. “Boston” is easy stride-type oom-pah accompaniment divided between the hands. You hear “Boston” all over the Minton’s stuff, and sometimes Monk walks bass lines, too. It’s all very swinging. of course. It was the dawn of the new avant-garde music, bebop, up there at Minton’s, but they were still swinging!
(In the Town Hall rehearsal tapes at Eugene Smith’s loft, there’s a duo of Phil Woods and Monk playing “Lady, be Good.” Monk plays full out rhythm guitar quarter notes, kind of like Erroll Garner, with a fairly big accent on two and four. Very swinging.)
Two bootleg solo tracks of “‘Round Midnight” and “These Foolish Things” were recorded at Timme Rosenkrantz’s apartment in November 1946 and just recently made available on Timmie’s Treasures. These were are real find, I’m a bit surprised more wasn’t made of them (I only learned of their existence looking in the Lord discography), but on the other hand I suppose it was a fairly unauthorized and illegal release. Monk sounds great, of course. On a long “These Foolish Things” he’s not as resolutely different from everybody else as he would become: Compare this version with “These Foolish Things” on Prestige in 1952. Honestly I think you could fool somebody reasonably experienced in a blindfold test: A few Monkian things are undeniable, but a lot of it might sound like a classy cat from the era imitating Monk, not Monk himself! Since it’s undoubtedly unauthorized to begin with:
Monk’s first commercial recording was four tracks with Coleman Hawkins. These are really enjoyable, and Monk sounds like Monk. Oddly Hawkins seemed to “get” Monk more than Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie. Bootleg tracks with Dizzy’s big band have little obvious Monk moments, and Bird struggles with “Well You Needn’t” on a sadly truncated live track. The studio Norman Granz session with Bird, Diz, Monk, Curly Russell, and Buddy Rich is an essential library item but Monk barely gets to solo.
On his first trip overseas in 1954, Monk casually made an immortal masterpiece in a Parisian studio. Originally for Vogue, it has been issued under many names and labels. It was actually my first Monk LP, called Thelonius (sic) Monk: Piano Solos on the highly questionable Everest imprint. Over the years I have repeatedly engaged with this session, only to discover each time that it is even greater than I remember. Mostly superb originals plus a magnificent “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
Gigi Gryce got Monk, Percy Heath, and Art Blakey to join him for four songs for half an LP on Signal. The three Monk tunes, “Shuffle Boil,” “Brake’s Sake,” and “Gallop’s Gallop,” might rank as finest Monk groupthink from a studio ensemble that wasn’t a working band.
On video there’s a fabulous “Blue Monk” w Abdul-Malik and Osie Johnson and Count Basie looking amused — probably because Monk stole more than a few licks from the Count, especially on a blues!
Newport ’55 has three tracks with Miles, Zoot, Mulligan, Percy, and Connie Kay, including a famous “‘Round Midnight” that helped Miles begin his trek to superstardom. “Hackensack” and “Now’s the Time” are good too, although Kay’s backbeat on the latter might indicate that he’s a little worried about Monk’s loud and syncopated accents.
Even better are four tracks from Newport ’58 with Henry Grimes and Roy Haynes. Grimes is so young but he throws down hard, with aggressive accompaniment and a strikingly brilliant solo on “Well, You Needn’t.” Haynes crackles and pops like always. It’s less than 20 minutes but must be in the collection of serious Monkophiles.
There are only three Riverside tracks of what by all accounts was one of the most exciting groups in history: the Five Spot quartet with Coltrane, Ware, and Wilson. “Trinkle Tinkle” is famous, but “Nutty” is where one just begins to sense what Ware might have brought to this group when it all was radiating correctly from tip to toe. (Coltrane talks about Ware quite a bit in his interviews.) There are also two live dates with Coltrane that surfaced only recently. A Five Spot session with Abdul-Malik and tremendous Roy Haynes offers a Coltrane nearing the end of his tenure and playing with enchanting melodic freedom, but the fidelity is so atrocious that I hardly ever return to it. A much more enjoyable session was the much-heralded late night session at Carnegie Hall with Abdul-Malik and Shadow Wilson. There was so much hoopla about this date in the jazz press that I was slightly disappointed when I first got it. However, the fault was mine; last week it frankly just knocked me out. This is the place where you can best hear Coltrane’s fury (his “sheets of sound”) intertwine with Monk’s comping. A perfect match. Wilson is nice and loud in the mix, and this is the strongest conventional performance I’ve heard from Abdul-Malik as well. An essential record.
Sonny Rollins invited Monk and quintessential Blue Note artist Horace Silver to duo on a long “Misterioso.” It’s a wonderful document but I’m not sure if Horace’s familiar and funky kind of statement comes off so well compared to Monk. On the quartet “Reflections” the intro is unlike anything else, and the whole performance has a deep emotional core.
Monk’ only association with Atlantic was on Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk. Many adore this album, but I never connected with it. I even sold my copy at one point, the only time I dismissed a Monk album in such a callous fashion. Listening again now I find there’s not so much of an obvious battle of wills between the two leaders as I recall but it still lacks something. It is important to hear Monk play a slow minor blues by Johnny Griffin, “Purple Shades.” In general Griffin sounds great, he and Blakey together is wonderful.
The Monk estate put out a two-CD set of Monk practicing “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” on The Transformer. Listening to it in a straightforward fashion is like experiencing abstract modern European music. I learned about this fairly obscure and utterly unique set from the late Shimrit Shoshan. She was a big talent, I fully expected her to become an important Monk interpreter and scholar. I always think of Shimrit when I put on The Transformer.
A quartet of Rouse, Sam Jones, and Art Taylor can be heard in a good set at Newport ’59. The easiest Monk tunes and the unhampered festival setting seems to bring out the best in the band. They are sort of joined by Barney Wilen on the recently released movie soundtrack for Les liaisons dangereuses. It is interesting to hear the group in a different kind of recording environment but the 2-CD set is primarily of academic interest. I do like Art Taylor’s weird thudding toms on “Light Blue,” that is something different! A long rehearsal take has Monk trying to get Taylor to play those toms without the downbeat. “The bass drum is on the upbeat,” he tells A.T., but A.T. is confused. Monk goes even further, counting it out for the drummer. From the vantage point of 2017 this is not exactly rocket science rhythmically, but it is a stark reminder of how jazz was essentially super-advanced folk music in 1959. In the end, A.T. never sounds quite convinced of his part, even on the final take. It’s not a stretch to point to this one-off as proto-Doug Hammond and Steve Coleman “drum chant” composition.
There’s all sorts of non-standard issues from the 1960s. Mike Kanan hipped me to a joyous set at the Village Gate with Rouse, Ore, and Dunlop which might have the fastest Monk-led “Rhythm-a-ning” on record. Through Mike I also heard Leroy Williams play a wonderful 1970 tape of Paul Jeffrey, Wilbur Ware, and Leroy himself at a club in North Carolina that was (I think) Jeffrey’s first gig with Monk. Jeffrey held it down and played great with Monk for about five years, big sound, melodic ideas, swinging hard. Players like Clifford Jordan and Sonny Rollins are somewhere not too far away from Jeffery’s conception.
All the ’60 Monk videos are tremendous, and there’s a lot of them. I wrote the notes for a Jazz Icons DVD release of the solo 1969 France set. (Al Foster told me he loved those notes, that was just about the nicest compliment about my writing that I’ve ever received.) The short all-Ellington concert with striding “Satin Doll” is on YouTube (along with everything else). As I suggest in “Think of Monk,” the videos might be among the best ways to appreciate the whole Monk.
Ask Me Now Slightly square ballad with dramatic overtones. Home key is hidden for two bars before everything else is in D-flat. Joe Henderson made this a common-practice standard in the ’80s, usually decorated with a stunning saxophone cadenza.
Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are Blues in B-flat that pushes past E-flat all the way to A-flat.
Bemsha Swing Co-authored by Denzil Best and a jam session staple, although Bill Frisell pointed out to me (yesterday, on the centennial) that even on this relatively simple piece Monk’s chords are more specific than one usually hears. Monk rarely played Lydian in the tonic (exceptions include “Gallop’s Gallop” and especially “Jackie-ing,” see below), but he helped popularize Lydian as a deceptive finish, for example D-flat lydian at end of C major “Bemsha.”
Blue Monk On the downbeat? Still on the downbeat? How about another downbeat?
Boo Boo’s Birthday Angular and brilliant earworm, hard to play well (Monk himself gets lost in the form on his only recording).
Brake’s Sake Sophisticated chromatics lurk in between a shouting melody and a low pedal point. The end of the form “takes it all the way home” every time.
Brilliant Corners Incredibly difficult then and now, with choruses that alternate between slow and doubled tempo .
Bright Mississippi “Sweet Georgia Brown” changes. Fairly basic but thrilling nonetheless.
Bye-Ya An exceptionally brilliant Latin number that defies normal analysis. There is no real consensus whether it is is A-flat or E-Flat. (More on that topic, with a complete transcription of Monk’s first recording, elsewhere on DTM.)
Coming On The Hudson A wild collection of notes and rhythms, perhaps Monk’s oddest work. A definitive performance awaits.
Crepuscule With Nellie Glorious through-composed blues ballad for his life partner. Later non-Monk versions with improvisation have yet to convince me that Monk was incorrect to only play it “straight.”
Criss Cross When working out his compositions, Monk played his pieces over and over, trying to make sure they were a “hit.” (Schumann and Stravinsky worked exactly the same way.) I’ve heard people say that Monk changed his music around a lot, but that’s not really my perception. Once it got to the bandstand or the studio it was pretty fixed. A big exception is “Criss Cross,” which has an 8-bar bridge for the first recording before shrinking to a 6-bar bridge in later versions. Great piece, one of my favorites.
Epistrophy Monk’s theme tune remains incredibly challenging to improvise on. Parallel or cycling dominants were are key to Monk’s conception. Kelley notes a few occasions where Monk demanded credit for the harmonic underpinnings of bebop, and I suspect that part of what he meant were fast-moving parallel or cycling dominants, a sound that didn’t exist in much jazz before Monk. They apparently played “Epistrophy” at Minton’s in 1941 and Cootie Williams did record an accurate version in 1942, although that wasn’t released until much later. It’s worth remembering studio records led by Bird or Dizzy that one could definitively call “small group bebop” were still a few years in the future. (In 1941 Bird was still in Kansas City.)
[Digression into standard repertoire: Both Monk and Bud Powell loved Gershwin’s “Nice Work if You Can Get It.” It’s probably the piece where they sound most similar, and both use the same deceptive ending in G-flat. At the top of the form the dominants cycle quickly and Monk plays the harmony fairly straight. However, in “Tea for Two,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Body and Soul” and “Sweet and Lovely,” he reharmonizes the diatonic tunes with busy cycling or parallel dominants that are shockingly unrelated to the original harmony. Among other things, this a way to make unusual dissonances “correct.” If the harmony has good internal logic (and cycling or parallel dominants are always logical), then the harmony doesn’t need to relate to the diatonic melody above. One can just brutally “force” the argument forward and still make sense despite the vertical chaos.
This is a reasonably commonplace effect in jazz from 1950’s on but I think Monk might have been the first to really put those kind of engines in action, especially in a band context where the whole group plays greatly altered changes to a standard. In that sense I think you can partly trace “Coltrane changes” to Monk. However, a lot of other people need to be in this conversation, beginning with the Billy Kyle/John Kirby “A Flat to C” from way back in 1938. Other people who had something to say about this topic include Art Tatum, Don Byas, Mary Lou Williams, Lennie Tristano, Mingus, Miles….I’m out my depth here, but it’s fun thinking about.
Eronel There’s a certain amount of composer controversy about this groovy number. The “A” section melody is absolutely glorious, but apparently it is actually by Sadik Hakim and Idrees Sulieman. I have no reason to be suspicious, exactly, but remain curious about what the tune really sounded like when Hakim or Sulieman played it.
Evidence The ultimate abstract minimalist reduction to essence. Monk’s comping engraved as tune. At this point most everyone knows how it goes, but it is telling that Steve Lacy and Don Cherry (both Monkians of the highest order) were still playing it as a simple incorrect hemiola on a wonderful early version with Carl Brown and Billy Higgins. “Evidence” is based on the older standard, “Just You, Just Me.” In case you aren’t hip: “Just You, Just Me” = “Just Us” = “Justice” = “Evidence.”
Four In One A brilliant flourish! And then, my god, the needle gets stuck in the whole tone scale. In Berlin in about 2000, I saw the German avant-garde jazz group Der Rote Bereich play “Four in One.” They really got stuck in the whole tone phrase. You have no idea. They played the last five bars of the A section hundreds of times. It was incredibly effective, a dramatic piece of conceptual art, and also a reminder that Monk is perhaps the most important father figure to all sorts of European avant jazz.
Friday The 13th Just one phrase that keeps returning back to the tonic. A seriously ominous and African vibe for the major-minor tonal system. For those wishing to connect Monk to Hip-Hop, I’d suggest starting with “Friday the 13th.”
Gallop’s Gallop It’s abstract as hell but these jumpy phrases go together perfectly to create a hit tune.
Green Chimneys The second-line was important to Monk, of course, and in this case he gave it to the private school where the Monk kids were students.
Hackensack A kind of “Lady, be Good.” When Ray Copeland’s trumpet gets in there on the quintet recording it is truly “out.”
Hornin’ In Monk should have brought this one back, a tasty swinger full of half-step harmonies. A highlight of the Blue Notes.
Humph Rhythm changes starting on F-sharp winding around back to B-flat, an effect that may have come from the Billy Kyle/John Kirby “A Flat to C.” I can understand why he didn’t bring back “Humph,” for eventually he just put it all in “Rhythm-a-Ning,”
I Mean You One of his most popular tunes, a rare example where everybody knows the odd-meter intro and tag.
Introspection To his credit, Kelley makes a point of noting that “Introspection” is unusually brilliant, even for Monk. Dexter Gordon called bebop “the music of the future.” Here we are on the spaceship to the outer planets. The work repeatedly cadences in D-flat major; in the original recording there is only one D-flat dominant, the last high chiming notes.
In Walked Bud Based on “Blue Skies” and one of the most popular jam-session Monk tunes.
Jackie-ing A few years before “Jackie-ing,” George Russell wrote about the “Lydian Chromatic Concept,” which became a discussed text among Miles and Coltrane the rest of the advanced New York musicians. I don’t know if “Jackie-ing” is a response to Russell, but it sure as hell is an extreme take on Lydian. One of the truly weird things about “Jackie-ing” is that it is a straight folkloric 16-bar phrase. Yeah, I know you don’t believe me, but go back and count it again!
Let’s Call This Perhaps a relative to “Brake’s Sake,” and a slightly easier Monk tune that is truly “Monkish.” On FB, Bill Morrison pointed out that “This” is closely related to “Honeysuckle Rose” changes. I never noticed that before but it’s absolutely true.
Let’s Cool One The squarest Monk tune. Although he didn’t say so, I remain convinced he is making fun of the West Coast cool school with a supremely un-syncopated melody.
Light Blue This one is a bit different, with a chanting four-bar phrase that essentially stays in one place.
Little Rootie Tootie Train sounds confirm the big debt to Ellington. Overton’s orchestration of the brilliant first Monk piano solo was a watershed moment in jazz arranging.
Locomotive Not often played, this minimal work perhaps lacks a touch of the classiest Monk charisma.
Misterioso One of the most significant blues compositions wrestles with the even-eighth note and the major seventh. It is problematic when people call Monk “Webern-esque,” but if you’re gonna try to do that, then the “pointillistic” “comping” on the head out from the Blue Note version is your best argument.
Monk’s Dream Almost a drone in C. So simple — yet so perfect and so different from anything else.
Monk’s Mood A great work, an epic in the 32-bar AABA frame.
Nutty Common-practice changes with the bridge simply up a fourth like “Good Bait.” The rhythms and whole tone cascades of the piano part are hard to play correctly.
Off Minor First recorded by Bud Powell, then by Monk. This is another rare example of something he fussed with a bit, the melodic and harmonic details changed over time. Bud’s is really different from Monk, I wonder if that was Monk’s “first draft?”
Oska T. As discussed above, this might be Monk’s response to modal jazz.
Pannonica Tribute to his friend and patron, the Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter.
Played Twice Another particularly abstract piece, although like “Jackie-ing” the darn thing is still just a 16. The 5-beat phrases in F dominant were possibly unprecedented in jazz?
Raise Four Monkian blues, now all the way boiled down to the supreme bebop dissonance, the flatted fifth.
Reflections A simpler Monk ballad, but one that still has hidden Monkian cross-relations and “false” resolutions.
Rhythm-A-Ning A charging piece for rhythm changes that Monk played a lot. Everyone else has played it a lot, too.
‘Round Midnight A famous work. Monk’s own harmony and melody have been repeatedly overlooked, although in recent years that has changed a bit for the better.
Ruby, My Dear Roland Hanna liked to stress how these chord progressions have mediant relationships. A hard piece to follow by ear, and generally poorly played by others. “Monk’s Mood,” “Pannonica,” and “Ruby, My Dear” all end on the same harmony, the D-flat lydian that also concludes “Bemsha Swing.” Melodically the last phrase of “Ruby” is is different than the others. The D-flat comes out of nowhere and only for the coda and final chord. I wonder if this wasn’t Monk encoding a private message with this signature harmonic move?
San Francisco Holiday (Worry Later) Something minimal, something catchy, something all Monk.
Shuffle Boil A rare example of a ’50s jazz piece requiring an independent bass line. However Steve Lacy would play it solo — without the bass line, with just tons of space — and that worked, too.
Skippy It is telling that “Skippy,” never revived by Monk himself and once considered essentially impossible — Lucky Thompson groans with frustration during his solo — now boasts over 50 recordings by later musicians.
The “Skippy” changes are used for the later Monk recordings of “Tea for Two.” Apparently Brian Priestley was the first to put this observation in print, for The Wire in the 1980s. I learned of this amazing detail from Bill Frisell after the centennial. Almost everyone (including Preistley and Frisell) thinks that Monk re-harmed “Tea for Two” and then used that progression to write the line “Skippy,” a logical sequence of events. However, I have decided that the reverse is possibly true. Maybe he made up the rather sensible (if difficult) changes of “Skippy” and played it a little bit. Then at some point a couple years later he thought, “Huh, what if I put the melody of ‘Tea for Two’ over this?” There’s an obvious precedent for this kind of behavior: Charles Ives. I can easily imagine a Ivesian brass band coming through “Skippy” and playing “Tea for Two.” A lot of brilliant American music is a rather brutal kind of mash-up. (To be clear, I am occupying an unpopular position here: a whole chorus of experts on FB tried to shout me down. However, I maintain that this “brass band concept” is a provocative and inspiring idea, and of course no one can know for sure.)
Straight, No Chaser A familiar blues, although going back to the Monk original shows some surprising details, especially the clusters in the left hand.
Stuffy Turkey A hint of canon enlivens a fairly simple rhythm changes. The bridge is truly weird. Not too often played by others.
Teo A grunting, stuttering version of minor, somewhat in the “Topsy” tradition.
Thelonious A key work. The melody is African code, the accompaniment is Harlem Stride, the form is European abstract. Very hard to cover successfully.
Think Of One It’s just a few pitches, some quarter notes and a few minor syncopations, but these slender details conjure a vast world.
Trinkle, Tinkle One of Monk’s quotes was reportedly, “The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good.” Intriguingly, the bridge of “Trinkle” starts with same chord as A sections, the only time Monk did this on an AABA form. This “same start” kind of violates the idea of tension and release described in, “The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good,” but also proves that Monk could do anything and make it work.
Well, You Needn’t Miles Davis really screwed up this famous composition by putting the bridge in G instead of D-flat.
However the A section might be just as misunderstood. Gene Ramey unquestionably plays F to G-flat on the first recording, and that’s what everyone else has always used since. In Monk’s own band (but hardly anywhere else) that move was expanded to F, G-flat, F, E-flat by Wilbur Ware, a hip idea also used by Butch Warren and Larry Gales. Monk doesn’t do any of that in his low left hand: rather, he has a wonderful wandering chromatic line (that also shows up for trombonist Eddie Bert on the Steve Allen show bootleg). While soloing, Monk’s right hand hardly ever strays to G-flat, usually remaining in F throughout. Comping is a different story: you can hear the G-flat in Monk’s high-register comping.
Bassist Putter Smith played with Monk several times near the end. When he asked Monk if he should play F alternating with G-flat or just F, Monk shrugged and said, “Mix it up.”
Miles, Cannonball, and countless others played the F to G-flat and all the bridge chords as dominants. For Monk, all the chords could be sevenths, sixths, major sevenths, perhaps even a straight triad. Again, “Mix it up.”
We See I’ve heard this a lot recently, I think it is now one of the most-played Monk tunes at jam sessions. What a bridge, no one else would dare.
Who Knows? Only one recording, and very hard to play. Title seems accurate.
Work This is another one that everyone plays now, although Monk only played it once (brilliantly) trio.
Ugly Beauty His only waltz. Apparently it was Ben Riley’s idea to put it in 3/4. The opening chord is crucial, and of course the title sums up an aspect of the man’s entire aesthetic.
52nd Street Theme Never recorded by Monk himself, yet famous in the bebop era, played countless times by Bird, Bud, and many others. The lead sheet in Cardenas/Sickler is based on Monk’s own chart: Note the slightly different bridge.
(Speaking of The Thelonious Monk Fakebook edited by Steve Cardenas and Don Sickler: I think it is great. One should still listen to the records, of course, but you can cut a lot of corners with The Thelonious Monk Fakebook, it is a true labor of love authored by experts.)
Monk was always catnip for jazz critics. Martin Williams, André Hodeir, and Gunther Schuller were just three of more famous early proselytizers for Monk, although for me none of their work holds up all that well today.
Much significant commentary from several eras is collected in The Thelonious Monk Reader edited by Rob van der Bliek. Der Bliek reached out after reading the first edit of this overview and sent me the following scarce 1946 article by Herbie Nichols for the Afro-American periodical Rhythm.
At the time I was gathering and putting together the material for The Thelonious Monk Reader in the late 1990s, there was confusion about Nichols’ piece, since he was quoted as saying in A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business that he wrote the profile for the Music Dial in 1946. I was at the Institute for Jazz Studies perusing their files and came across a photocopy of a column Nichols had written in 1944 for the Music Dial, in which he briefly mentions Monk as someone to watch out for, and after consulting with a number of people and having searched the remaining issues of the Music Dial, concluded that this was what he was referring to. Not so … As it turns out, years later both Mark Miller, who was working on a biography on Nichols, and Robin Kelley, who was working on his Monk biography, unearthed the 1946 article, but as it turned out it had been published in a magazine called Rhythm.
It’s an amazing document.
There are several books about Monk. Laurent de Wilde’s is interesting. He’s an excellent jazz pianist himself so he has something different to offer, although frankly the “French perspective” does not always scan as correct to this American.
More importantly, Robin D. G. Kelley’s invaluable Life and Times of an American Original is now blessedly definitive. Admittedly, there are times when Kelley’s musical opinions diverge shockingly far from mine, for example when he cites Kenny Clarke’s “monotonous brush work” on Thelonious Monk plays Duke Ellington. One hopes that all the tapes of all the interviews Kelley did are preserved: At some point everything the great musicians and close family members said in the extensive interview process should be transcribed and made available.
The liner notes to the two early Mosaic LP boxes are out of print but are worth chasing down:. Michael Cuscuna is one of the great Monk enthusiasts, and the first Mosaic box The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk was graced with a long essay where Cuscana collates a lot of information, even comparing the tempos of pieces from throughout Monk’s career. The liner notes for The Complete Black Lion and Vogue Recordings of Thelonious Monk are penned by a man who was at the session, Brian Priestley, who remembers some extraordinary details about the interactions between the musicians.
Amiri Baraka and Stanley Crouch ended up on opposite poles politically, but some of both their best work was about Monk at the Five Spot: Baraka reviewing a gig, collected in Black Music, and Crouch penning the liner notes for the Monk/Griffin Milestone reissue twofer, collected in Considering Genius. Gerald Early’s sobering “Thelonious Monk: Gothic Provincial” mentioned above is collected in The Thelonious Monk Reader, although everyone should really have a copy of Early’s Tuxedo Junction (which also includes the Monk essay) on their shelves as well.
Recent online pieces include:
Benjamin Givan, “Thelonious Monk’s Pianism” (pdf) (Givan kind of blew my mind with the suggestion that the jarring parallel seconds on “These Foolish Things” from Prestige Trio was Monk reacting to a particularly out-of-tune “F.” It might be true!)
Billy Taylor got there first with “The Mad Monk” in the 40’s. Charles Mingus offered “Jump Monk” in 1956. McCoy Tyner honored the basics with an impromptu “Monk’s Blues,” later on his piece “The High Priest” was carefully worked out with contrapuntal horns. A couple from the ’60s avant-gardists are among the best and most important: “Hat and Beard” by Eric Dolphy, “Monastery” by Andrew Hill, “Monk in Wonderland” by Grachan Moncur III. (Ornette Coleman‘s tribute “The Monk and the Nun” was tracked in 1959 but wasn’t released until later.)
Just a few others from a long list, mainly from the older straight-ahead masters: Johnny Griffin “A Monks Dream” Barry Harris “Off Monk” Gary Bartz “Uncle Bubba” Kenny Barron “The Only One” J.J. Johnson “Thelonious The Onliest” Jimmy Rowles “The Ballad of Thelonious Monk” Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn “Frère Monk” George Cables “Melodious Funk” Sonny Rollins “Disco Monk”…
There are many more.
The Lord discography lists 1755 versions of “‘Round Midnight.” Two that come to mind as being especially important are Eric Dolphy with George Russell and Herbie Hancock‘s solo piano rhapsody.
There are about 500 versions of “Blue Monk.” Two that come to mind as being especially important are Abbey Lincoln/Mal Waldron and Cedar Walton/Clifford Jordan.
There are about 500 recordings of “Well, You Needn’t,” including supremely great “normalized” versions by Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley. Randy Weston‘s quartet from 1956 (Charles Davis on alto) shows that even then, some musicians were willing to dig deeper into Monkian mystery.
There are over 300 recordings of “Evidence.” Two particularly great versions are the aforementioned Lacy/Cherry and fabulously chaotic Jaki Byard with Roland Kirk that includes a simultaneous “Spotlite” and “Just You, Just Me.”
There are over 200 recordings of “Bemsha Swing.” Don Cherry brought out James Clay for an important version with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins. Geri Allen, who I have argued is the dominant piano influence of our era and truly understood Monk on a cellular level, played great versions of “Bemsha” with Woody Shaw and Ralph Peterson, but perhaps the most intriguing is solo piano on her second album Homegrown.
Even something as non-obvious as “Work” has 70 recordings. Mulgrew Miller with Charnett Moffett and Terri Lyne Carrington in 1986 and Vijay Iyer with Stephen Crump and Marcus Gilmore in 2014 show how different generations recreate Monk in their own image.
There are far too many great one-offs to mention. Two that are especially cool are Charles Tolliver/James Spaulding/Bobby Hutcherson/Cecil McBee/Billy Higgins “Brilliant Corners,” a superb example of young turks dealing with the hardest music of their elders, and “I Mean You” with McCoy Tyner and Tony Williams, a noisy love-in unique to the discography.
(Special mention goes to the estimable Hans Groiner, who has done such a good job of illuminating Monk’s music in recent times.)
The first all-Monk album (not by Monk) was by Steve Lacy. Reflections is still interesting — that opening “Hornin’ In” with both Mal Waldron and Elvin Jones in full effect is a hell of a thing — but truthfully Lacy was just getting started in a lifetime of exploring Monk, with the collaborations with Roswell Rudd deserving special mention.
Eventually albums of Monk became almost commonplace. Jerry Gonzalez Rumba para Monk sensibly brought the Afro-Cuban flavor to the fore, a concept expanded to odd-meter with Danilo Perez’s influential Panamonk. Alexander von Schlippenbach Monk’s Casino did the whole canon in European conceptual style. Carmen McRae‘s Sings Monk made a splash, she sounds great and Clifford Jordan is a good foil.
In my view, Tommy Flanagan’s Thelonica is a particularly legitimate Monk tribute album, not least because Art Taylor is there swinging so hard.
On November 1, 1981 four sets of Monk were played and recorded by a supergroup of Don Cherry, Steve Lacy, Charlie Rouse, Roswell Rudd, Richard Davis, and either Ed Blackwell or Ben Riley and four pianists, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Davis, Barry Harris, and Mal Waldron. (These recorded documents might be a little underwhelming considering the level of talent involved. That’s a lot of different kinds of energies to corral into a jam-session gig. However, I would have loved to have been there.)
The day of Monk’s death, February 17, 1982, Charlie Rouse, Kenny Barron, Buster Williams, and Ben Riley recorded Four In One, the debut album of all-Monk tunes by the collective Sphere. (Monk had a way of getting dates to work out. Of course his centennial week includes a “Friday the 13th.”) My relationship to Four in One show how my tastes have changed and grown over time. When I first listened in high school it wasn’t overly quirky or avant-garde enough or something. Now I just hear four bonafide masters having a ball playing together.
The 1984 Hal Willner anthology double-LP That’s the Way I Feel Now offers an amazing roster of diverse artists performing Monk tunes.
Other full-length collections of Monk have been made by Walter Davis, Fred Hersch, Arthur Blythe, Sonny Fortune, Randy Weston, Ran Blake, Bennie Wallace, Paul Motian, Chick Corea, Don Pullen, Georg Graewe/Marcio Mattos/Michael Vatcher, Wynton Marsalis, Esbjörn Svensson Trio, David Mengual, John Beasley’s MONK’estra, Peter Bernstein, Terry Adams, Roland Hanna/George Mraz, Steve Khan, Anthony Braxton, Elliot Sharp, Andy Summers, Kronos Quartet, Tim Warfield, Dominic Duval/Jimmy Halperin, Georgio Gaslini, Greg Thompkins,Eddie Lockjaw Davis/Johnny Griffin, James Spaulding, Christer Boustedt, Joshua Breakstone, Umberto Petrin, Mike Melillo/Franco D’Andrea, Andrea Gomellini, Matthias Batzel, Joe Bonner, Rick Roe, Scott Amendola/Ben Goldberg/Devin Hoff, Tete Montoliu, Jessica Williams, Anthony Brown, The Microscopic Septet, Bobby Broom, Buell Neidlinger/Marty Krystall, Bebop and Beyond, Greg Lewis, Tony Kofi, The Great Jazz Trio (Hank Jones, Eddie Gomez, Jimmy Cobb), Ansgar Dalken, Eric Reed, Sam Newsome, Steve Slagle, The Ralph Peterson Fo’tet, Bill Holman, Masao Yagi, Dave Liebman, Ben Riley, John Stetch, Michiel Scheen, Art Lande, Ellis Marsalis, Joey Alexander, Wadada Leo Smith….
(The above list cannot possibly be complete, I will add the others as they come in.)
Bud Powell‘s A Portrait of Thelonious is not Powell’s best, but at the same time deserves perhaps the most careful study of all. Those two friends and mutual inspirations meet in a certain mystical African-American piano space nobody else had access to. The greatest example of Powell playing Monk is almost certainly the “‘Round Midnight” with Bird from One Night at Birdland. (More on that epic gig elsewhere on DTM.)
There’s a real dearth of accessible primary score documents in jazz, probably because the best music never really could be written down anyway. Still, given how many bad habits academia has picked up from a half-century of half-assed lead sheets, a proper folio of manuscripts from jazz masters could work wonders for future students.
This partial Monk chart to an early draft of “Monk’s Mood” with alternate titles exists in the Mary Lou Williams collection.
Three more scores surfaced on Ebay. The “Boo Boo’s Birthday” seems identical to the one seen on the piano that Monk and Rouse go over in the documentary Straight No Chaser.
When I sent the above charts to Craig Taborn, he replied, “It is so instructive to see the chord voicings Monk wrote — rather than chord symbols. which are almost useless in understanding the intention and genius of Monk.”
A messy lead sheet to “Trinkle Trinkle” being passed around looks almost conventional in comparison. At the bottom is the intro to the first 1952 trio version of “These Foolish Things” (although they ended up playing the rhythm a bit differently).
Monk wrote it all out to remember for himself. But he seldom let his fellow musicians see the charts. There is story after story of it being incredibly difficult for people to learn to play with Monk because he would never hand them any damn music. He would simply play the piece over and over at tempo and musicians had to fall in or quit. Both Gigi Gryce and Hall Overton won his trust enough to help notate for multiple horns, but even in large group situations, Monk was happiest just playing his tunes over and over, just so. He told Overton he’d be fine if a group learned one song in a full day’s rehearsal. This was resolutely impractical, but also admirable. There’s no other music that sounds like Monk’s music, and the laborious rehearsal process helped keep the aesthetic pure.
Hyland Harris offers some provocative insight:
Musicians who worked directly under Bird basically had to hang onto their seats and just stand next to him. Bird wouldn’t say anything. Whereas Dizzy would sit down his musicians at the piano and teach them, he was very explicit. So musicians who had access to both had the best of what the modern music had to offer: Miles Davis and Kenny Dorham and a few others.
Monk was kind of in the middle. He never wrote music out for others to read and did not give a lot of direct instruction, but he was very specific in an indirect sort of way. The Trane apprenticeship comes to mind. Monk really taught on an intuitive level. There was a Methodology but it was not proto-institutional they way Diz was.
This is a cultural thing but when playing for a black audience, you get something back from the gig other than getting paid. There is some dialogue between the musician and the listener. That High Priest title was no joke. His music was always pushing. It was always stark, it was jarring, it was always “All Ways.” Meanwhile, his music swung! Black people always loved Monk. His bands were usually all black. When he danced, it was not the same response from white people as to was from black people. It was not as strange to them. He never chased fads or young people, he did not have a new repertoire or a new book at every gig, but every gig was an experience, and the black people who got it… already had it!
Monk was a complete package. The DNA is pure swing. The compositions have swing built right into them. It’s the blackest shit ever and it’s also from the future.
Paul Motian was one of Monk’s best students. He changed his ride cymbal beat after Monk sang a version to him during a week in Boston (with Rouse and Scott LaFaro of all things). Later on his whole personal affect become “Monkish,” and his reign as one of the greatest NYC jazz musicians in the 90’s and 00’s was in some ways the closest we came to a post-modern High Priest.
The song “Dreamland” was mis-titled “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland” on the official release from the last Monk London sessions, but it appears also at the Five Spot with Johnny Griffin (only released later) and on video in Paris in 1969. Kelley thinks it is a Monk original. Motian apparently agreed and recorded “Dreamland” for ECM with the Monk composer credit.
I admit that I’m unconvinced that is not just some old parlor piano tune we haven’t found yet, mainly because the bones of Monk’s original ballads are so much more idiosyncratic than the quite conventional “Dreamland.” To me “Dreamland” sounds much closer to Monk playing “There’s Danger In Your Eyes, Cherie” or “I Love You (Sweetheart of All My Dreams)” than “Ask me Now” or “Reflections.”
At any rate, the following is Motian’s transcription, which is not quite accurate, but still an interesting document nonetheless. Motian puts it his own normal rubato tempo, which would be impossible for Monk to write.
I suspect Motian’s late-in-life musical celebration of Monk was encouraged by the Monkian aptitude of his new sideman Bill Frisell, who arguably did the most to put a strong version of an authentically Monk feeling on guitar. Bill told me that Monk’s chord voicings, that kind of stark and open sound, fit really well on the 6-string instrument — or, at least, it fit better than Art Tatum, Bill Evans, or Herbie Hancock!
After Paul gave Bill the “Dreamland” chart Bill rewrote it for himself. Now this looks a bit more the way Monk himself might have notated it…or maybe the way some original Tin Pan Alley tunesmith would have notated it. I love Bill’s composer credit, written in block caps.
As indicated above, Steve Lacy was one of Monk’s best students. After recording the first all-Monk album he played a bit with Monk, including the second Overton big band concert, although a bootleg quintet with Rouse, Ore, and Haynes is the only example on tape where Lacy improvises with his idol. He sounds good blowing on “Evidence” and “Straight No Chaser,” but in the end there was no reason for Monk to a have such an idiosyncratic soprano saxophone voice instead of his normal “power” tenor.
Eventually Lacy’s own music would become a vital art with the influence of Monk always at least a bit visible, even at its most avant-garde and “European.” (Try the extraordinary solo soprano recital Axieme.) A precious list of Monk aphorisms in Lacy’s hand has circulated on the internet for years. There’s no reason to doubt that Monk said all these things but it is important to note this is what Lacy wrote down: Occasionally it is posted with implication that Monk would have sat there and written this himself.
I’ll close with another highly educational bootleg, this one snatched off of YouTube. Monk sight-reads through Mary Lou Williams’s arrangement of “All God’s Children Got Rhythm” before fooling around with a way to make it his own. Barry Harris has this tape and includes a discussion of it during his Maybeck Recital.
[Thanks especially to Hyland Harris, Martin Speake, Steve Cardenas, Mark Stryker, Stephen Hall, Martin Porter, and Ted Panken, all of whom gave me specific leads for the above lists, but also general thanks to all the others who contributed to the explosion of Monk hivemind on my Twitter and Facebook last week.]