Music

Thelonious Monk: Monk’s Music

No matter how many times it gets reissued, a great album is still a great album. Monk's Music will never sound anything short of terrific.


Thelonious Monk

Monk's Music

Label: Concord
US Release Date: 2011-03-15
UK Release Date: Import
Label website
Amazon
iTunes

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. John Coltrane, Blue Train. Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um. Dave Brubeck, Time Out. These are the kinds of albums that represent a safe purchase for people who aren't too terribly into jazz. Not only are they good starting points to get into these artists' careers, they're also just great on their own. The contradiction of palatable high art is a big reason why they have such staying power. They are distillation, introduction and timeless substance all rolled into one package. And if I were to have my say, the album used to represent Thelonious Monk would be Monk’s Music.

1957 was a business-as-usual year for Monk and his colleagues. And back then, business-as-usual meant releasing three albums in one calendar year. This unusual pianist had pretty much secured his legacy as an angular composer and performer earlier that year with the infamous Brilliant Corners. His mid-year collection of (mostly) solo piano, Thelonious Himself, tends to fly below the radar these days, if only because it will forever be overshadowed by the dozens of quality releases that came before and after. By year's end, Monk did not find himself in the mood to introduce many new songs to his band, then John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Art Blakey, Ray Copeland, Wilbur Ware and Gigi Gryce. So most of Monk's Music is actually the act of covering old ground. And as the album's frank liner notes tell us, getting this simple act off the ground was not that easy.

Thelonious Monk's wife had fallen ill around this time and the worry weighed heavy on his mind. Maybe it was an effort to heal her or maybe it was an attempt to alleviate his own pain, but "Crepuscule with Nelli" was written just prior to the sessions. To the musicians he has worked with, a composition like "Nelli" represents the deep harmonic difficulty of a Monk original, and learning such a song goes beyond the rudimentary understanding of melodic figures and corresponding chords. When Monk tried to teach the song to his band at the start of the sessions, a lot of time was eaten up by the dangerous learning curve that "Nelli" presented. In addition to this, Art Blakey was running an hour late on the first day (which is not bad, considering some musicians I know). Of the two studio sessions the band had booked, the first one was spent dusting cobwebs with hardly any tape rolling. It is said that Monk was even getting a little snippy with Hawkins and Coltrane when progress was low and frustration was high. But this all turned around on the second day, and Monk's Music is what we have. It must have been a good day.

The album is bulging with standouts. "Ruby, My Dear" and the previously mentioned "Crepuscule with Nelli" give the record a tender balance next to the nuttiness that defined the leader. Monk's reputation as the man who could weave a wonky melody finds no better examples than in "Well, You Needn't" and "Epistrophy", both of which make liberal use of the tri-tone (that's the "devil's interval" for those of you who listen exclusively to chant) in their unshakable themes. "Off Minor" is equally intriguing in just how odd and catchy a mess of notes can be in the hands of a goofball like Thelonious Monk. Even Monk's Music's famous cover accurately gets the feeling across. To anyone who has watched footage of this man slamming the keyboard with flat fingers and seemingly immobile wrists, the idea of him striking a pose in a child’s red wagon just isn't that much of a stretch.

Alternate takes of "Off Minor" and "Crepuscule with Nelli" have been available on previous reissues of Monk's Music, and they are still here for the 2011 edition. The only track exclusive to this release is "Blues for Tomorrow," a 13-minute jam that alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce was developing at the time. Producer Orrin Keepnews wanted to use the remaining studio time for something a little different, and this is what he got. Monk doesn't even play on it. This new release album is bookended by Monk-less performances (the first track is a horn-only, 55-second chart of the hymn "Abide With Me").

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 bad ass 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.

10

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.

Music

Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.

Books

For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?

Music

Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".

Music

Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression (premiere + interview)

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.

Music

Fleet Foxes Take a Trip to the 'Shore'

On Shore, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way.

Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.