November 14, 2014


Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music, volume 1

Video: Monk playing solo: 

and, if you have about an hour and a half, here's the documentary about Monk's life and influence, "Straight, No Chaser": 

Thelonious Sphere Monk is one of the greatest innovators, composers, piano players and characters in the history of music (jazz, American or otherwise).  As the prime architect of bebop (he was often referred to in the press as the "high priest of bop"), he developed and shared his harmonic and rhythmic innovations with like-minded musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke when he served as the house piano player for jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem.  As you'll see in the videos, his personal mannerisms can most charitably described as odd, but his music (both his playing and compositions) is at once exuberant, jaunty, swinging, disciplined, and delightfully witty.

Genius of Modern Music, volume 1, is a collection of Monk's first dates as a leader for the Blue Note label in 1947.  The 14 sides (with about a half dozen alternate takes thrown in on the CD) feature a mix both of instrumentation...quintets featuring sax and trumpet and piano trios...and of tunes...2 standards interspersed among Monk compositions.  In the jazz world, only the songs of Duke Ellington are played and recorded more than Monk's, and this album features some of his very best: "Well You Needn't," "Ruby My Dear," "Monk's Mood," "In Walked Bud," "Off Minor," and Monk's best known work, the haunting "'Round Midnight."

To the uninitiated, Monk's percussive playing style and use of minor seconds (on a piano, think of hitting a white key and the black key right next to it) may sound unsophisticated or even child-like, but his music is actually remarkably difficult.  Careful listening (or trying to sing back some of his passages) will reveal just how complex his melodies, rhythms and improvisations are.  His music is calculated and organized, and reveals his knowledge of and affection for the history of the music.  A great example of this combination of simplicity and sophistication is "Thelonious", a melody built primarily on one repeated note, but which then goes off on a romp through the history of the piano from the early stride masters James P. Johnson and Willie "the Lion" Smith to the swing of Basie up to a reference to "Salt Peanuts," a favorite tune of Monk's bop contemporaries.  Another example of his sly virtuosity at the piano is the opening long glissando on "In Walked Bud": a seemingly out of control slide down the keyboard lands perfectly on the downbeat of a swinging a man falling out of a 4th floor window but landing on his feet and strolling away.  Besides Monk, the one constant throughout the entire album is drummer Art Blakey, whose muscular style provides perfect accompaniment. 

From this beginning, which was considered startling and daring in its time, Monk would continue writing scores of songs which remain essential to the jazz canon and to record dozens of amazing albums, featuring many of the other greats of modern jazz (Hawkins, Dizzy, Miles, Milt Jackson, Rollins, Coltrane to name just a very few) and, for many years, with his own regular working band of tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley (in concert: 

Posted by at November 14, 2014 7:55 AM

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