Saturday, April 01, 2006

Thelonious Monk

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.


Blogger girish said...

Just discovered the blog Postsecret.

April 01, 2006 10:35 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Nicholas Rombes of Digital Poetics on "Incompleteness."

April 01, 2006 10:37 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Great discussion on horror films at MZS's place.

April 01, 2006 10:39 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter on The Girl Can't Help It.

April 01, 2006 10:58 AM  
Anonymous Darren said...

Great stuff, Girish. I grew up listening to my dad's collection of big band music, but it's only been in the last couple years that I've begun exploring the big names of jazz. In fact, the other night at Borders I was flipping through The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz, and I've been thinking it would be fun to buy the book, then, over the next two years, buy one of their recommended albums each week, give it a couple listens, then write about it at Long Pauses.

Have you heard the albums Andy Summers recorded with Ropert Fripp? I have them on tape somewhere around here and was a huge fan of them in high school.

April 01, 2006 11:21 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Darren, I've bought three or four copies of that Ben Ratliff NY Times book over the last couple of years to give away as gifts to friends. It's very good--both in terms of taste and writing.

I like Fripp's work with Eno (No Pussyfooting) but would love to hear the Andy Summers stuff. Putting up the mp3's now made me pull out The Police's Zenyatta Mondatta and Synchronicity. (Summers' rhythm guitar playing on "Miss Gradenko" is unbelievable; always loved that song.) Years ago, I used to listen to the Police mainly because of Sting but these days my ears automatically tune into Summers; for me, he's the best thing about that band.

April 01, 2006 11:35 AM  
Anonymous Darren said...

I don't know enough about electric guitar tones to describe this properly, but you know those synth-like chords Summers uses on Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity (like in the background of "O My God")? That tone is all over the Summers/Fripp records.

April 01, 2006 11:57 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Guitar synths in the right hands can be used so imaginatively. Darren, I just found this.

April 01, 2006 12:02 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

You mentioned two of the things I like most about Monk--the angularity, yes, but also the dissonance--the way it seems odd and beautiful and just completely operating by its own rules. Not slamming anyone else's but just off doing its own thing anyway.

April 01, 2006 1:23 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Nice point, Tuwa.
Monk sounds not like he is breaking the rules but as if he is unaware that those rules even exist.

April 01, 2006 2:33 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Wonderful post, Girish. My introduction to Monk (sort of) and my introduction to jazz in general occurred at the same time: when I was a teenager, I saw a Monk celebration (on PBS) in which a number of jazz musicians performed his best music. Herbie Hancock doing "Well You Needn't" was enough to get me interested in Monk and in jazz (until then, it was nothing but rock 'n' roll for me). I haven't listened to Monk in a number of years, but I think this might get me back into it. I oughtta pick up that Carnegie Hall CD. Thanks for recommending it.

Thanks also for posting the Summers track. Hadn't heard it before, nor was I aware of his jazz albums. You're right about him being underappreciated. He always found new, interesting ways of using chords, and I always thought (somewhat impressionistically) that he played the notes other guitarists didn't. (And like his equally talented former band member, Stewart Copeland, he was always unfortunately overshadowed by Sting.)

By the way, Post Secret is one of the web's great sites.

April 01, 2006 2:36 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Michael.
My first experience of jazz was probably through Steely Dan records in my mid-teens (though I didn't know at the time that the "foreign element" I was hearing was indeed jazz), and then I heard Monk's Dream in my late teens.
And on "Miss Gradenko" (written by Stewart Copeland), Summers plays the most unexpected, odd notes in his solo and even the contour of the lead guitar melody line is really weird and jagged and sounds completely out of place in a pop song. (Which is great...)
He's what they once used to call a "concept guitarist"!

April 01, 2006 2:46 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Ah, "Miss Gradenko" was my favorite tune on that album! (Followed by "Walking in Your Footsteps" and "Tea in the Sahara".) Your description of his solo is right on.

April 01, 2006 3:23 PM  
Blogger That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Girish, another Monk fan. As much as his playing on disc, I love the few films I've seen of him playing live. His body language is as angular as his music, as though you can hear/see the sound coming through his movements. Have you ever seen Jim Marshall's great photos of Monk? He really captured the guy's spirit. I loved your mention of Charlie Rouse — one of the most underappreciated saxmen. Do you have that Columbia collection of his solo work? It's phenomenal. By the way, what are your thoughts on Mingus? As the years go by, he's the one whose music stays with me the most of that generation. I think he's the second Ellington, although in a crankier vein.
I enjoyed how you came to jazz through Steely Dan. It reminds me of a story I love to tell my especially snobby cultural friends: How The Partridge Family taught me the blues. As a kid, I was a PF fan. (Hey, maybe I still am.) Anyway, on the back of the Family's second album, Keith/David Cassidy answers a questionnaire: my favorite this, my favorite that. Asked his favorite song, he replies: THE THRILL IS GONE, by B.B. King. I bug my parents, I get some money, I get that record, and from the first guitar chords, my mind is blown. Suddenly, I'm some pre-teen looking around for B.B. King records, which in turn leads me to Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy, The Allmans and all the great blues kings, and that led me into exploring country and country blues, folk, ragtime, Dylan, etc. Just to think: If I hadn't wished that I had Keith Partridge's hair...
Maybe we should find out everybody else's paths into music, and movies. I imagine we've all had some odd, enlightening detours on the road...

April 01, 2006 3:44 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael, you're the first person I've met who agrees with me about "Miss Gradenko" being the best thing on Synchronicity. Tucked away at the far end of side 1 on the LP.

TLRHB--Love Mingus. Not sure if you've heard Andy Summers' tribute record Peggy's Blue Sklylight, but it's very bold. Example: "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" contains a rap by Q-Tip with lyrics from Beneath The Underdog! And Debbie Harry sings "Weird Nightmare". And a reggae version of "Boogie Stop Shuffle". It'll blow your mind.
Mingus Ah Um is one of the jazz records I've played most often.
Not having grown up in the US, I have elephant-sized cultural gaps. e.g. I've never seen an episode of Partridge Family and have no idea what it's about. (I've just heard the name.) It's too late to catch up on that stuff now, alas.

April 01, 2006 4:26 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Almost all the Rouse I have is with Monk. The only solo Rouse record I have is Unsung Hero on Columbia, referenced here.

April 01, 2006 4:29 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Don't feel too left out; I grew up in this country but I too have never seen an episode of the Partridge Family.

April 01, 2006 7:22 PM  
Blogger That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Girish, Brian, you're not missing anything. Just a marginal '70s teenybop group, that would mean nothing to you if you didn't grow up in that era. Was just using it to illustrate a point of the bizarre synapses our musical knowledge travels along. Believe me, stick with Monk and Mingus. And I'm with you on MINGUS AH UM, probably my favorite jazz disc after A LOVE SUPREME.

April 01, 2006 9:51 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian & TLRHB--Well, I don't feel quite so bad then!

I know it was a couple of posts ago, but the Drawing Restraint 9 post has been playing host to a lively discussion recently.
Wish I could jump in, but I'm heading up to Canada shortly. Please make yourselves at home, etc.

April 02, 2006 6:42 AM  
Blogger girish said...

So much for balmy spring.
Storm and snow expected tonight with a low of 26 (!) degrees. Buffalo weather: never a dull moment!

April 03, 2006 9:44 AM  
Anonymous The Pop View said...

I love Monk, both as composer and performer. My favorite song is "Straight No Chaser."

"Miss Gradenko" is a good one, written by Stewart Copeland. But don't forgot the noisy number "Mother," written and sung by Summers.

April 03, 2006 3:52 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Pop View--I forgot all about "Mother". . .It's a gas!

April 03, 2006 4:05 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

You should make more of those Girish. I'm not quite the melomane (my memory is better visual than auditive), and I usually don't bother for music in films.
I'd be interested to learn more though. This discussion about music style is quite insightful.
What would be your musician perspective on the use of music in cinema? Or maybe a jazz-improv style of film reviewing ;)

I love Duke Ellington! I discovered it through Boris Vian (famous french novelist, trumpet player, and singer) who was Jazz critic and contributed to introduce Jazz in France before WW2.
One of the title character in "L'écume des jours", is called Chloé, and her lover, Colin, says she's just like Ellington's arrangement of Chole. So I had to track down this music. :)

These Thelonious Monk's samples are great, I should listen to more of this.

April 05, 2006 8:58 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Harry. I'm glad you liked the music!
Have you ever seen Tavernier's Round Midnight, with Francois Cluzet? It's a good jazz film.
Yes, Boris Vian is a jazz legend...

Re: your question about the use of music in cinema, I find it quite tricky. I think Bresson had a good solution. :-) By eliminating it!
I love music of course but it has often been used in a superfluous, not-absolutely-necessary way to manipulate, cue emotions or underline elements that are already present in the film. It's best used when it adds another layer of new "information". I think Preisner's music for Kieslowski is very good. Blue makes incredible use of music. (It's also, in many ways, a movie about music.) Angelo Badalamenti's music for Lynch is great too... There are so many examples...

Let me know if you ever want jazz recommendations; I can suggest a few things.

April 05, 2006 9:10 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I agree with you about minimal use, I'm glad this comes from a musician. I don't understand what is so great about Bernard Herrmann's scores for Hitchcock for instance...
I guess there is also a mainstream/artfilm treatment of film score, and very few give it a cinematic significance I'm afraid.

I enjoyed the music in Blue, but I would be hardpressed to explain how it collabores to the film, so that's where I'd welcome an educated analysis on the use of music in films. I hope you'll write on it in the future, so I can enhance my appreciation of cinema.

Yes, please send me your Jazz recommendations. So far I enjoy Duke Ellington, Django Reinhardt, Stéphane Grappelli, Miles Davis, but I know them superficially so you could suggest me a title in particular.

So Boris Vian is known abroad too? I'm surprised. (I meant after WW2, not before, in my comment above)

No I never got around to see 'Round Midnight yet...

April 05, 2006 10:51 PM  

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