I’ve occasionally had friends tell me that they think of jazz as a sometimes inaccessible music—esoteric even—and not always easy to “enter into” and appreciate. When I hear this, I think back to the moment when I felt like I first “got”—and fell in love with—jazz: hearing Thelonious Monk for the first time.
This is not to say that Monk’s music is necessarily “easy” or watered-down or eager-to-please; it’s none of those things. What accounts for the instantly arresting quality of Monk’s work? I’m not exactly sure, but I have a few ideas I thought I’d lay on you. There are two major aspects to Monk: (1) his performing, and (2) his composing. We’ll briefly look at both.
I’m drawn to musicians who have a distinct “voice”—players you can ID within a few bars. (It must be the same side of me that loves auteur cinema.) More than almost any other performer in jazz, this is true of Monk. He plays with a staccato attack and leaves lots of silence and space around his notes—there have been instances, for example on his recordings with Miles Davis, of fellow musicians jumping in mid-solo because they assumed he was done. Most prominently, there is a percussive “hammering” to his style, as if he is rapping on a table with his knuckles.
Monk extracts an interesting tone from the piano—sort of raw and dusky—and uses fingering styles that would cause your average piano teacher to keel over in disbelief. For example, he will sometimes play a key with two fingers (!) and hold his hands flat above the keyboard rather than in the smooth poised curve that is "proper". Two Monk jokes made up by jazz wags: (1) He can make an in-tune piano sound out-of-tune, and (2) He sounds like he’s playing the piano with work gloves on. What makes them both funny is that you realize the seeds of truth in them.
Thelonious Monk – “Monk’s Dream” (1963)
This is the title track from my favorite Monk record. He made it with tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, who sounds the way Monk might’ve if he had been born as a sax player: dry, brusque and direct. He makes other tenor players sound sentimental, with all their glissandi and vibrato caresses.
Monk is arguably, along with Duke Ellington, the greatest jazz composer. Tunes like “’Round Midnight,” “Straight No Chaser” or “Misterioso” are revered fixtures in the jazz repertory, and have only grown in popularity in the decades since they were written. Monk wrote strange-sounding melodies, angular, lurching, often child-like. And he placed accents on odd and unexpected beats. He liked to use that fearsomely dissonant interval, the minor second—two notes immediately next to each other in pitch, like a white key and the black key next to it, played, or in Monk’s case, mashed, together.
Chick Corea – “Eronel” (1982)
Lewis Nash – “Monk’s Dream” (1993)
Andy Summers – “Shuffle Boil” (1999)
Pianist Chick Corea is also a percussionist and thus perfectly suited to Monk’s (percussive-sounding) melodies. His trio performs “Eronel”—the name of the song is “Lenore” spelled backwards. Drummer Lewis Nash offers up a version of “Monk’s Dream” that softens the jaggedness of the melody by arranging it for vibes and piano in unison. (I’ve always been a sucker for the sound of the vibraphone—first on the list of “What instrument do you wish you played?”).
And ex-Police guitarist Andy Summers rocks out on “Shuffle Boil”. He knows that jazz chops are not his strong point, so he wisely chooses to emphasize the tone and texture of his electric guitar playing, rather than his speed or harmonic (chord-based) proficiency. I’m actually planning an entire post on Summers; I’ve been a big fan of his playing since The Police and think he’s a terribly underappreciated guitarist. He’s recently made two superb albums that are radical interpretations of jazz composers (Monk and Mingus), both of which were sadly ignored—too rock for jazz audiences and too jazz for rock audiences. A shame.
For the uninitiated, please allow me to recommend three Monk artifacts: (1) Monk’s Dream (1963), a perfect starter record; (2) The newly discovered live recording he made with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall in 1957; and (3) Straight No Chaser, the documentary produced by Clint Eastwood and directed by Charlotte Zwerin, which features some of the greatest living jazz pianists playing and talking about him. It is widely available on DVD, and was made a few years after Monk died in 1982.