[6 August 2007]
In the early 1960s, the quirky, brilliant artistry of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk was just coming to light. Though Monk had been a key architect of the bebop revolution and had long been recognized by jazz players as a master American composer, he had been outshone by jazz celebrities such as Charlie Parer, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Come the ‘60s, however, something about Monk’s eccentricity struck a chord with the public. A wearer of odd hats and a genuine oddball guy who danced about his piano during saxophone solos and whose utterances were often cryptic at best, Monk made the cover of Time on 28 February 1964.
Since then—and particularly in the 25 years since Monk’s death—jazz musicians have been covering his tunes almost obsessively. Indeed, on the day Monk died in 1982, a tribute band taking his middle name (Sphere) recorded an album of pure Monk. If covering “Round Midnight” and “Straight No Chaser” has been de rigueur since Miles did it in the ‘50s, then covering “Well You Needn’t” and “Ruby My Dear” has since become just as common. Any Real Book-toting local band has got the basic chops.
What then of the Monk’s Music Trio, a local San Francisco piano trio that believes itself to be “one of the longest continually performing Monk repertoire band in the history of jazz”?
Monk on Mondays (referring to the trio’s longstanding gig at a Bay Area café) was recorded “live” in pianist Si Perkoff’s home—13 mostly familiar Monk tunes played straight up and straight down. No surprises. Every track is faithful to a fault. Monk’s Music Trio plays Monk the way Monk might have played it 40 years ago. Except that Si Perkoff is not a dashing genius of the jazz piano whose every solo seems to emerge fresh from his puckish imagination. And that distinction says it all.
Very few Monk interpretations, of course, can match the wit and quirk of the real thing. That is why most jazz musicians who play Monk defiantly put their own spin on him. In fact, that is precisely what has demonstrated the brilliance of Monk’s tunes: they retain their distinctive character even when interpreted in wildly different ways. Kenny Barron plays Monk with elegant grace. Cedar Walton plays him with a funky rhythmic groove. Miles Davis made him brash and atmospheric at once. Steve Lacey gave him a strident “out” edge. Medeski, Martin & Wood wedded him to reggae for goodness sake.
The Monk’s Music Trio, while perfectly swinging and utterly acceptable and without a doubt devoted to the tunes, just plays him utterly straight. Perkoff, who gets most of the solo space of course, plays with exuberant emphasis. His time is usually straight on the beat, particularly on the swingers such as “Let’s Call This”, even rushing ahead of the groove in some places like a kid who just can’t wait to get to the next lick or chord. Bassist Sam Bevan is nicely recorded and plays with solid time and fine note choice, and drummer (and label owner) Chuck Bernstein is old school-swinging all the way. It’s also fair to say that the band’s chemistry is good. All is fine, but maybe not dandy.
To be dandy playing Monk covers these days, fresh ideas are mandatory. And while Perkoff has mastered any number of pianistic Monk-isms (the whole tone scale runs, the half step dissonances, the odd little trills), nothing here seems fresh or new. You’d be lucky to catch these guys on a Monday in San Francisco, no doubt. But in 2007, every jazz fan who might buy an obscure local disc like this surely has OD’ed on this kind of thing already. The disc is enjoyable but, alas, only the most recent in a line now so long as to be tiresome.
Monk traditionalists, perhaps, will find authenticity here. At least three of the covers (“Brake’s Sake”, “Locomotive” and “Something in Blue”) are rarely played and ht your ear differently as a result. But three tracks does not an album make. I’ve got the waft of musicianship and devotion from the Monk’s Music Trio, but—hungry for fresh flavors—I’ll keep walking down the sidewalk in search of a new set of seasonings.