Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A World Without Thelonious?

Fortunately, we don’t have to face that prospect. Thelonious Monk has been in the grave for more than 20 years, but his music lives on, in dozens of his own CDs and dozens more that other musicians have recorded in honor of his genius. But how, you may ask, can one select from the dozens of “Salute to Thelonious” albums that are available? Well, read on, dude, read on.

First place in the Monk derby has got to go to John Stetch’s solo album Exponentially Monk. Stetch is a Canadian-born pianist with fantastic chops and intelligence, who, sadly, does not get nearly enough work. Get this album.

I’ve often dismissed Wynton Marsalis, though not to his face, as the world’s greatest studio musician, but wiseguys like me are often wrong, and Wynton’s Marsalis Plays Monk is a definite keeper. The CD features an essay by Stanley Crouch which you can, um, skip, but Wycliffe Gordon does the best Monk trombone work I’ve ever heard.

Ellis Marsalis, Wynton’s father and pretty much the Johann Sebastian Bach of jazz, genetically at least, does a nice job with his own Monk album, an open letter to Thelonious, using a quartet that features son Jason on the drums. In his liner notes, Ellis tells us that he could never get into Thelonious back in the day, because his hero was Oscar Peterson.[1]

Drummer Ben Riley, who worked with Monk for years, recently assembled a fascinating, 8-piece, piano-less group billed as the “Monk Legacy Project” to record Memories of T, one of many albums that, I suspect, aspire to meet the standard set by Hall Overton’s classic arrangements for a 10-piece group first available on the Riverside LP Thelonious at Town Hall.[2]

Knut Kristiansen, who, by the way, is Swedish, is another contender for Overton’s title, using both large and small groups on Monk Moods. Kristiansen gets points both for tackling the classic Monk jaw-breaker “Brilliant Corners”[3] (with the full, 10-piece group) and for using a trumpet-player named Øyvind Brække.[4]

I confess that I’ve never been able to get into Anthony Braxton’s own work, but his 1987, out of print recording, Six Monk Compositions, is exceptional. Working with Mal Waldron on piano, Buell Neidlinger on bass, and Bill Osbourne on drums, Braxton turns in a brilliant “Brilliant Corners,” which stretches for more than nine minutes.

Contemporary pianist Fred Hersch sounds way too much like Bill Evans for my ears, and his solo album Thelonious: Fred Hersch Plays Monk is pretty much what you’d expect, although his “Five Views of Misterioso” shows some real smarts. Too bad he didn’t do the whole album like that.

Monk was nothing if not unique, and the easy winner in the “unique” category here is Monk Suite by the Kronos String Quartet, recorded back in 1984, with Ron Carter sitting in on a couple of the tunes. The album features yet another brilliant “Brilliant Corners,” a real highlight. When this album first came out I was hoping that Kronos would do a couple more Monk albums, but unfortunately not.

I wish I could recommend Monk In Motian, because it features two of my favorite musicians, Paul Motian and Joe Lovano, but I can’t, because it also features the omni-present and omni-audible Bill Frizell whose fuzztone guitar work makes me gag. Bill’s a big favorite with both Paul and Joe, so either they know something I don’t, or vice versa.

On the other hand, I can recommend Paul Motian and the Electric Be-bop Band Play Monk and Powell. This album has two guitars, but neither of them is Frizell, plus an electric bass, which I could do without. But there are nice versions of both “Brilliant Corners” and “Little Rootie-Tootie,” which Monk first did in a trio version for Prestige in the early fifties. Hall Overton’s bravura arrangement of Monk’s solo for 10-piece orchestra was a highlight of the Town Hall concert, and Motian’s version draws from it.

Electric bass also shows up, unfortunately, on Monk on Monk, a tribute to Thelonious by his own son, who likes to bill himself as T.S. Monk. The music gets a bit too funky at times, but there’s a nice version of “Bright Mississippi,” a tune that I’ve always liked.[5]

Monk was nothing if not austere, and perhaps the most austere tribute to him is Monk’s Mood, by the Dave Liebman trio, featuring Liebman on saxes, Eddie Gomez on bass and Adam Nussbaum on drums. Liebman contributes intriguing liner notes, saying that he didn’t care for Monk when he saw him live in the sixties, playing the same tunes over and over in the same way with the same group. But watching saxophonist Steve Lacy play an all-Monk set got Liebman to thinking, and as he met other musicians who were equally enthusiastic about Monk, he started taking the music more seriously.

Guitarist Joshua Breakstone leads another power trio, featuring Dennis Irwin on bass and Mickey Roker on drums, on Let’s Call This Monk, has another version of “Brilliant Corners,” plus the neglected “Humpf.”[6]

Group 15 Plays Monk, featuring Tom Aalfs on violin, Peter Bernstein on guitar, and Jay Leonhart on bass (15 strings, get it?), is yet another trio take on Monk, including one of my favorites, “Misterioso,”[7] which is almost as neglected as “Humpf.”

Brian Trainor contributes yet another trio album, Monk and Me, with a few friends sitting in from time to time. The album only contains five Monk compositions, with Trainor contributing the rest. Brian claims Monk as a primary influence, but, unsurprisingly, proves more conventional than Thelonious, both as a composer and a performer. Fortunately, Brian’s trio, with Vince Fay on bass and Bill Jones doing a very nice job on drums, is well worth hearing. Vocalist Kelly Rodrigues contributes a nice vocal, “Still We Dream,” based on Monk’s only waltz, “Ugly Beauty.”

If you like bop vocals, and I do, you’re going to want Carmen McRae’s Carmen Sings Monk, which has fifteen of them. In the grand tradition of bop vocals, the lyrics aren’t that great, but there’s a certain pleasure that some of us—a few of us—take in hearing a singer handle music that wasn’t written to be sung.[8]

If you’ve got one Monk vocal album, you’ve got to have two, right? It’s just a damn necessity. Fortunately, Soesja Citroen (yeah, that Soesja Citroen) is more than capable of filling the bill, with Soesja Citroen sings Thelonious Monk.

Jessica Williams is a pianist with both intelligence and chops, but her In the Key of Monk is largely overwhelmed by her taste for finery and filigree. Such is not the case with The Fo’tet Plays Monk, served up by the Ralph Peterson Fo’tet, an intriguing combo featuring Ralph on drums, Belden Bullock on bass, Bryan Carrott on vibes, and Steve Wilson on soprano sax. Steve’s angular sax, floating over Bryan’s angular vibes, is definitely a different sound, and Ralph provides some bumpin’ percussion.

The cover of Steve Slagle plays Monk isn’t too promising, showing El Stevo looking a bit too rive gauche in a beret and Gallic ‘stache, plus a free-form silk shirt, but when you put on the disc, things get better. The group—Steve on alto (both sax and clarinet), Dave Stryker on guitar, Jay Anderson on bass, and Adam Nussbaum on drums—looks like the world’s oldest house band, but they can play. And where else are you going to get “Jackie-ing” on alto clarinet? Such a bargain!

Reflections of Monk—the Final Frontier, from a group led by Gary Bartz (alto and soprano sax), is hard to classify, other than that it’s good. Most Monk interpreters seem to be saxmen, but Eddie Henderson plays a lot of good trumpet on this one, and Jenelle Fisher and Mekea Keith each contribute a vocal.

Perhaps the foremost Monk interpreter of all was soprano saxophone player Steve Lacy, and two of his early albums, Reflections—Steve Lacy Plays Thelonious Monk and Evidence—Steve Lacy with Don Cherry, are well worth having. Reflections features Mal Waldron on piano, Buell Neidlinger on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. Not too shabby! And Evidence features Carl Brown on bass and Billy Higgins on drums, along with Cherry on trumpet. Both Higgins and Cherry were closely associated with Ornette Coleman, of course, and it’s intriguing to hear them take on Monk’s music.[9] Lacy continued to feature Monk’s compositions in his “free jazz” recordings, but I found a lot of these disappointing.

Milt Jackson’s Memories of Thelonious Sphere Monk is a strange album. Only four tunes, less than half the album, are by Monk, and Jackson himself only solos on one of them.[10] Ray Brown on bass and Mickey Roker on drums are both excellent, but pianist Monty Alexander is a journeyman at best. Still, this album is a must-have, thanks to Ray Brown’s more than brilliant bowed solo on “’Round Midnight”—the first half in particular, which is just about the lowest solo you’re ever going to hear. It won’t just move you, it’ll move your furniture too. You may want to get a new sub-woofer for this one. Or maybe a pair!

I’m not a fan of Tribute to the Great Thelonious Monk, an album organized by trumpeter Maxwell Price. Price doesn’t impress me as a trumpeter, and in fact the major soloist is Archie Shepp, best remembered as a proponent of free jazz and black nationalism back in the sixties. Shepp’s gnarly solo work on this album isn’t bad—better than I remember him from the old days—but after two or three tunes he, and the rest of the group, all start sounding the same.

Pianist Walter Davis, Jr. turns in an excellent solo album, In Walked Thelonious, featuring fourteen short, crisp takes on Thelonious’ tunes. Speaking in Tongues, a recent album by Michael Kocour, piano, Dwight Kilian, bass, and Dom Moio, drums, features nice takes on tunes by both Monk and Bud Powell.

Guitarist Andy Summers offers a seriously electric version of Monk on Green Chimneys, a late tune by Monk named for the progressive Manhattan school attended by Monk’s son. Police-pal Sting drops in perform the definitive vocal version of “’Round Midnight.”

Bad Monk albums? Well, there’s Rumba para Monk. Latin jazz! So easy to do wrong, so hard to do right! Also, Junior Mance Plays Monk. Junior meant well, I’m sure, but the road to Hell, well, you know.

If you don’t know Monk, there is no better introduction than Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, recorded in November 1957 but not released until 2005. The two solo albums Monk recorded with Riverside Records, Thelonious in San Francisco and Thelonious Himself, are pretty much gold. His first album for Colombia, Monk’s Dream, and Underground, one of his last, are both excellent. For Monk’s recording career in complete detail, go here. For Thelonious Monk ringtones, go here.

[1] Marsalis finally did figure out how to get his chops around Thelonious’ tunes, but it’s a fascinating tid-bit. Peterson recorded literally hundreds of albums as Norman Granz’s house pianist back when Verve was the biggest house in jazz, working with all the classic boppers, from Charlie Parker on down, even though he was happiest when working in a swing groove with his beloved Gershwin. Peterson broke into the big time with his own trio in the late fifties, and made a great deal of money playing “funky” blues for white frat boys, at the same earning the contempt of all right-thinking critics and musicians. I remember reading a Downbeat “blindfold test” with Monk back in the sixties, which asked him to comment on performances of his work by various artists. Monk was rarely complimentary, but when it came to Peterson he said nothing at all—only silence could express his contempt.
[2] The original liner notes to the LP say that Riverside wanted to make the concert an annual event, but apparently Thelonious wasn’t interested. When Monk switched labels to Columbia in the early sixties, Columbia brought Overton back to do some new arrangements, available on the double CD Monk Big Band and Quartet in Concert. It’s good music, but to my mind falls well short of the original, which (again, to my mind) remains the only “great” big band jazz ever recorded.
[3] To my knowledge, Monk’s sole recording of “Brilliant Corners” is available on the classic Riverside album of the same name. Reportedly, Monk gave up trying to achieve a complete take of the tune after 20 tries, and went with a composite. If he ever recorded it again, I haven’t heard it.
[4] Øy vey Øyvind, eh?
[5] I liked it as “Sweet Georgia Brown” as well. Thelonious had to pay royalties to owners of the copyright to SGB. I’m so thick I didn’t even notice the source of Monk’s inspiration.
[6] Monk didn’t always bother to name his tunes, which led a number of suspicious titles, like “We See,” “Ask Me Now,” “Let’s Call This,” and “Think of One.”
[7] Monk’s best recordings of “Misterioso” occurred when he was, nominally at least, appearing as a sideman. His 1948 Blue Note recording with Milt Jackson (available on Milt Jackson, wizard of the vibes) is quintessential Monk, and so is his 1957 Blue Note recording with Sonny Rollins (available on Sonny Rollins vol. 2). In the 1957 recording, which also features Jay Jay Johnson, Monk plays the intro and close, solos, and accompanies Rollins, but Horace Silver accompanies Johnson and provides a modestly Monkish solo as well.
[8] They heyday of the bop vocal was, of course, the bop era itself, when Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and Carmen drove the crowds wild with vocal riffs on “How High the Moon.” Unfortunately, a lot of those vocals weren’t much good, but if, like me, you’re a sucker for singers sounding like instruments, you’ll search out the winners, like Sarah’s up-tempo version of “Cherokee,” which she recorded a number of times, and Carmen’s magnificent “Baltimore Oriole,” originally part of the sometimes too-precious Birds of a Feather album. Ella’s scat version of “Airmail Special,” recorded at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, demonstrates both the pleasures and the perils of genre to perfection. Ella’s rendition of the melody is beyond brilliant (if only she had a complete Benny Meets Charlie album! Or two!) but when she begins to improvise she sinks like a stone. Easily the best jazz vocalese album I know is Anita O’Day Sings the Winners, an expanded version of an album Anita did for Verve in the late fifties, taking on everyone from Louie Prima to Miles Davis. Anita, who did love her heroin, didn’t care much for rehearsing, and her Verve albums tended to be thirty minutes and out, but this album gives us nineteen winners instead of twelve, with particularly wonderful versions of “My Funny Valentine” and “What’s the Story, Morning Glory?”
[9] Monk himself was quite envious of the attention that Coleman received, saying that “I was the first one to do that”—referring, I think, to Coleman’s technique of building a solo by working and reworking a simple melodic theme in both coherent and unexpected ways—while criticizing Coleman’s abandonment of the traditional chord structure. Monk always resented the fact that he didn’t become famous as a young musician, although his extreme unreliability (and he wasn’t even a heroin addict!), his extreme reluctance to play music that he hadn’t composed himself, and his extreme tendency to “direct” soloists instead of accompanying them, giving them direction most of them couldn’t understand, didn’t help his case.
[10] Did Milt and Monk have a falling out at some time? Back in the late forties they made two very famous sessions together for Blue Note, and on Dec. 24, 1954 they joined with Miles Davis for the more than classic “Bag’s Groove” session. But after that, never again.

1 comment:

Susan said...

Hello Alan,

Thanks so much for your kind mention of my "Exponentially Monk"; I just saw your article now. I have a new CD of all TV themes that I'd like to get to you, if you can answer me at

Thanks and take care,