Thursday, April 03, 2008

Uncle Markie's Music Heroes: Thelonious Monk

As I type this post, I am listening to the live version of "In Walked Bud" on Misterioso. Johnny Griffin plays tenor sax on this date, and it reminds me that the reason Thelonious Monk is a great jazz composer is that his tunes invite all kinds of creative exploration. Not all players sound good playing with Monk, but the ones who do (Milt Jackson, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charlie Rouse)very often sound at their best when playing his music, either in his bands or in their own.

I'm not kidding when I say that Monk is, to me, a genius-level music intelligence. The man started writing forward-looking music in the early 1940s and kept writing and performing it for another 25 years. Writing about Monk, the jazz critic Martin Williams said the way you could tell his compositions were real compositions is that it's hard to whistle a Monk composition without missing the non-melody parts. Each piece is part of a perfect, interlocking musical machine in which the middle and bass voices are always as important as the melodies. It sure sounds like he heard and wrote his music whole.

Monk can (and certainly did to 1940s and early 1950s audiences) sound alien to you if you're used to more traditional bop playing. The other thing I noticed when I tried to learn how to play Monk's tunes is that they're really hard to get right. The accented beats come at completely unexpected, surprising intervals. When I first heard Monk play piano as an 11-year-old who knew Miles and Clifford Brown were hip (thanks, Mom! thanks, Dad!) he sounded like a drunk guy who kept partially hitting the piano keys next to the keys he was supposed to be hitting. But even then I could tell the melody lines made sense within their musical universe.

So Monk basically created his own music, which has opened up worlds for other musicians. There's a lot to hear in the music. Monk's music can be wonderfully funny (like "Little Rootie Tootie"), or really frightening and disorienting ("Evidence" and "Trinkle Tinkle"). It almost always swings. And unlike even Ellington, he could write and play deep, beautiful ballads like "Monk's Mood" and "Crepescule with Nelly" without a bit of sentimentality. It's probably no accident that his best-known piece, "'Round Midnight", is also the definitive ballad of the bebop era.

[discography to come when I'm not feeling lazy]


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