Thelonious Sphere Monk was a musician and composer every bit as unique and strange as his name. He worked out his own concept of time, his own rules of harmony, and his own method of touch.
He could play, simultaneously, honky-tonk stride with his left hand and avant-garde dissonance with his right hand; pound out arpeggios with the oddest flats and sharps imaginable; disrupt phrases with abruptly angular turns—and manage somehow to make it all sound right.
Today, no other pianist sounds at all like him; nor have any, however otherwise brilliant, bothered to try to. (Many musicians have played Monk’s music, but the best of them aim to capture his adventurous spirit in their own language and style.)
Monk began taking piano lessons around the age of 12, and within a couple of years was playing rent parties in Harlem and accompanying his mother’s singing at church. At the age of 13, Monk entered and won the weekly amateur show at the Apollo so often that he was eventually barred from competing.
By the age of 19, he was the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse and the house dressing was a roasted garlic vinaigrette along with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. This may or may not come into play later on, but I’d rather err to the side of caution. Together, working mostly at nights with bits of leftover stuff they found lying around, they invented a style of jazz known to this day as BeBop.
In the forties, New York was lousy with jazz, mostly of the big band variety. Every street corner featured its own band, and anyone who could play an instrument was expected to play in a group much like today’s equivalent of every high school guitarist who can play Enter Sandman being expected to join a band. This led not only to an excess of musicians, but an absolute glut of homogenous middle-of-the-road big band music.
Imagine a time where every single club features a high school metal band playing Crazy Train. Of course, like a lot of guys ahead of their time, Monk struggled in obscurity for most of his early years. During his formative decade playing with cats like Art Blakey and Parker he garnered a cool reception from honky critics who couldn’t handle his way-out sound.
Things went from bad to worse when, in 1951, he was nailed in a drug bust (not to mention that the stuff wasn’t even his but belonged to another spacey cat, pianist Bud Powell!) and New York City took away his cabaret card, severely limiting his performance options. It wasn’t until 1955 when he recorded an album of Duke Ellington covers for the Riverside label that he started to generate a buzz.
A couple albums later he released “Brilliant Corners” which brought his songwriting front and center. From there he got his cabaret license back, did a residency at the Five Spot with John Coltrane and finally started getting the recognition he deserved. This led to the sixties wherein Monk landed a cover on Time magazine, got signed to Columbia records and finally established himself as a jazzman of note (though probably a dissonant note).
Keep in mind that at this point many of his Bop contemporaries had faded away a long time ago. (Parker was dead, Diz was still playing though his heyday was behind him, Miles Davis was the only one still creating fresh and new music.)
Dig it Daddy-o. You’re at the Five Spot, New York city, 1956. Monk is banging out angular melodies on the piano while Trane soars high above him. Art Blakey pounds out synchronous, erratic beats on the drums. Off to your right is a white cat, high on something, arrhythmically snapping his fingers in the air, a faraway look on his face.
A young Negro doll saunters up to you and coyly whispers an invitation in your ear. Suddenly, a large dragon appears out of the men’s room and emits a twenty foot blast of flame that vaporizes two club patrons and a waitress.
People began screaming and then the zombies attack, hoards of them, clawing about for the taste of human flesh. But Monk keeps playing, dimly aware of what’s happening around him, lost in the world of his music.
After hours at many clubs, musicians would gather for loose jam sessions. Minton’s was no different. But Gillespie, Parker and Monk grew frustrated with the mediocre talent dragging down the level of their get-togethers. They began adding unusual chords and breakneck changes, weeding out all but the heartiest of the bunch.
At first just trying to leave their lesser brethren behind, they soon found their inventions gaining ground and becoming an entirely new form of jazz. Gillespie and Parker are widely credited as the innovators of BeBop, with Monk considered “the midwife of BeBop;” he was present at the birth, but the baby doesn’t look anything like him.
Let’s investigate now the top 6 Thelonious Monk albums:
It’s a shame that Underground has suffered such neglect over the years, because the album marked a breakthrough for Monk (if also a last gasp). It was the first of his Columbia albums—his first album, period, for more than a decade—in which most of the songs (four out of seven) were newly composed and previously unrecorded.
Nor were these compositions throwaways; they’re as bizarrely appealing as many of Monk’s familiar classics, and—in case anyone thought Monk might have been coasting—they’re more intricate than most. (You can tell a musician has seriously studied Monk when he or she plays songs from Underground instead of sticking to “‘Round Midnight,” “Well You Needn’t,” or “Ruby My Dear.”)
5. Monk’s Dream
His first recording for Columbia, Monk’s Dream, was released in February 1963, and remains his best-selling studio album. There is only one new composition, and it got him in trouble; “Bright Mississippi” has some rather obvious chordal similarities to “Sweet Georgia Brown”, whose writers threatened to sue him over it all. Other than that, there are four songs that Monk had already written—some of them are older than 10 years—and three remakes of classic show tunes, all of which he had recorded before.
4. Thelonious himself
Whether fragmented, dissonant or oddly hesitant, Monk’s probing into standards were often stunning adventures in a glacier-slow version of stride and a deliberateness that were downright sculptural. Here he does it in five tunes, including “April in Paris” and “I Should Care.” The originals include the stunning “Functional,” nine minutes of blues that Monk himself found reminiscent of James P. Johnson and which is captured here in two superb versions.
These are the darkly moody summoning of “Round Midnight,” with Monk somehow encrypting his most famous tune and strangest of all, the closing “Monk’s Mood,” for which Monk required the presence of Wilbur Ware on bass and John Coltrane on tenor for a very odd trio recording.
3. Monk’s Music
By the year 2011, there just isn’t much that can be said about Monk’s Music anymore. We could discuss the range of talent within the band, but everyone knows how much of a badass Coltrane still was after he kicked heroin. Everyone already knows that Art Blakey could pound out one hell of a drum solo while maintaining a steady hi-hat on every other beat.
Everyone knows that Coleman Hawkins could play pretty much anything you threw in front of him. And everyone knows that Monk’s Music could be as good as post-bop gets.
Thelonious Monk Trio (Prestige, 1954), here in a Rudy Van Gelder remaster edition, is the early Monk and also amongst the most eternal of his albums. The disc catches Monk playing with the same revolutionary zeal as characterized in his earlier masterpieces Genius Of Modern Music Volume 1 (Blue Note, 1947-48) and Volume 2 (Blue Note, 1947-52), and before the latter, more prepared, structural and conceptual achievements of Brilliant Corners (Riverside, 1956) and Monk’s Music (Riverside, 1957), with their bigger line-ups.
1. Brilliant corners
Brilliant Corners, recorded for the Riverside label in 1956 with an A-list band including saxophonist Sonny Rollins and former Charlie Parker drummer Max Roach, was the most compositionally ambitious session in the former church pianist’s decade-long jazz career thus far. In a legendarily fractious session, the title track’s growling theme was so treacherous in its lurching phrasing and abrupt time changes that a band this good still spent 25 repeats on it, and the final version was only possible by splicing two parts together.
But the Brilliant Corners was not a calculated technical highwire act, but a piece of audaciously adventurous composing that has never lost its power to startle and seduce over the decades.
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