Thelonius Monk Quartet: Misterioso

Monk's music, recorded live and in his prime.

Thelonious Monk Quartet


Label: Original Jazz Classics
US Release Date: 2012-05-15

Thelonious Monk was one of the great eccentrics of jazz music. Beyond the funny hats, beyond his tendency to indiscriminately bash away at his piano, was the inimitable sense of melody and sophistication that went into his craft. Though prized for his ability at his instrument and his comping skills (largely being responsible for introducing such previously unusable things like the tritone and the minor second into the jazz lexicon), it was truly the material he contributed to the overall jazz canon that assured his place as one of the all-time greats. More than any other member of the bebop class (save perhaps Parker and Gillespie) his compositions moved the genre forward and are still a necessary step in the education of the modern jazz musician. Monk was also a respected luminary of the jazz world, as many musicians like Bud Powell and John Coltrane held residence in his band before going on to their own successes.

Monk's style of playing has been called 'nearly impossible to imitate' with good reason. Simply put, the way he plays sounds, upon first listen, not only foreign but inherently wrong and offensively bad. Due to the conditioning of listeners' ears towards only hearing certain rhythms, certain harmonies and certain intervals, Monk's comping can be extremely jarring until the listener is finally clued into the fact that, yes, he is playing that way on purpose. He is more than capable of playing 'normally' if he so desires. Look to the example of "Nutty", the first track here. Monk starts off playing some haphazard jabs of atonality that almost completely mask the melody hiding underneath. The melody itself, which is rather lighthearted and even jaunty, doesn't become readily apparent until saxophonist Johnny Griffin joins him, and even then Monk keeps pounding away at a kind of chord structure that would fit much more comfortably within Schoenberg than with a mellow jazz quartet. Only when he takes a solo does it dawn on the first-time listener that despite his proclivities for sonic confrontation vis-a-vis dissonance, Monk possessed one of the best melodic sensibilities of any player of the past century. In stark contrast to the unabashed virtuosity of his peers, which, as the years went by, descended into nothing more than rapid-fire scale recitations, Monk tastefully interpolates the head of the piece throughout his solo with a sweetness and levity with occasional splashes of his forward-thinkingness in the form of slightly aloof intervals.

The actual, physical way that Monk played had a lot to do with the timbre of his solos and comping; as opposed to curving his fingers and playing with the tips touching the keys, he played with his fingers outstretched and taut, striking the keys like he was an abusive parent disciplining a child, often using the strength of his entire arm to rain blows upon the instrument. As many people might not know, the piano is actually classified as a percussion instrument, like a drum. Monk's playing was a knowing attempt to approach the piano as a highly complicated drum, rather than as the kind of machine that birthed countless classical forms; a Beethoven sonata and a Monk composition could hardly be more diametrically opposed, but the fact that they can both spring from the same instrument is astounding.

The overall feel of the album is extremely mellow, and tends to mostly shy away from some of the hyperactivity that is associated with bebop and hard bop. The one exception is the occasional forays into over-playing by Johnny Griffin. He takes solos on all the songs here (with the exception of Monk's languorous solo take on "Just A Gigolo"), but many of them are more or less running up and down scales. This style of playing is a tremendous hindrance to the compositions; on "Nutty" and "Blues Five Spot" the music almost stalls when his solo spots begin. On the former, particularly, this approach is extremely awkward and almost completely inappropriate. All of the countless Parker-isms in these solos serve to make Monk's solos look all the better. And the sad thing is that Griffin also had a good sense of melody, as shown in his extended solo for "Let's Cool One", which starts out reserved, dancing around laid-back sequential patterns and jumping up and down the instrument's range. However, he gives in more and more to the bad habit of playing with his brain rather than his soul as the piece goes on. Luckily, these tropes are mostly avoided in his playing on "In Walked Bud", which again shows that playing with more complexity and ferocity is not the same thing as playing with more passion and heart, but neither are the two approaches interdependent, as his faster passages here are tempered by a searching melodic design. Once the song goes into double-time and drummer Roy Haynes' manic yet grounded playing propels everyone else along, Griffin's manner noticeably improves. Even more adventurous in this piece is the playing of Monk himself, which pushing the song to the breaking point only for bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik to break it completely within a solo that slowly, completely and fascinatingly disintegrates any pretense of structure, tonality and rhythm, leaving it up to Haynes to reassemble the song bit by bit before beckoning the entire band back to play the head and finish up the piece in sublime fashion.

The title track is one of Monk's most easygoing compositions, and the entire band just eases right into it, stretching the song out to eleven minutes and just enjoying themselves with little self-expectation (maybe too much, as Monk himself takes a break for most of the piece). The best part is the juxtaposition within the rhythm section; Abdul-Malik is cool and chilled-out, only bothering to playing on the downbeat with the occasional eighth-note thrown in for good measure. Haynes, meanwhile, is like an impatient child in the backseat of a long car ride; he mostly sits still, but lets out intermittent jabs and screams, impatiently wanting more and getting nothing back for his efforts until finally resigning himself to just relaxing with everyone else.

One of the genres of music that has benefitted most from technology has been jazz; only so much music could fit on a record, and whereas many rock bands struggled to come up with a worthwhile thirty to forty minutes to include on an LP, jazz bands actually has the opposite problem of having to decide what to leave out since they had far more material (quantitatively, and often qualitatively as well). So the advent of digital technology has done a good job of correcting this unfortunate issue. Now, older jazz albums can be reissued with all of the extra stuff tacked on. And unlike the worthless B-sides of rock groups who pad their reissues in order to jack up the price, the extras on jazz reissues are actually worthwhile. Take for instance the beautiful workout of "'Round Midnight", perhaps Monk's best known piece due to Miles Davis's famous version (and even more famous album cover). Monk's version is far more stately and far less mournful than Davis's, and it is wonderfully exciting to hear it being interpreted so dramatically differently by the original author. Davis was all darkness and angst while Monk was all wondrous abandon. These two versions present the fundamental difference between the two personalities that made it impossible for them to work together; just like how the sun and the moon are so rarely sharing the same space in the sky, so were these two jazz greats. Even in a melody that lends itself so ably to gloominess, Monk was able to find lightheartedness within. Then there's the take of "Evidence" where Monk is audibly humming along with his own solo like a kid on a sugar-high burning through his energy before lapsing into a sugar coma, or the closing "Bye-Ya/Epistrophy" with Haynes's fierce solo that whips the band into a fervor for the final recitation of the head and quickly transitions into a brief, vertigo-inducing take of "Epistrophy" that whips you around the room like a passing tornado. All of these extras make this a worthwhile purchase on their own merits. Sure, there are a few better Monk albums (Brilliant Corners and Monk's Music spring to mind) but this is a fine addition and an excellent snapshot of Monk playing in a simple quartet setting, unencumbered by any pressures to break new ground, and able to just let the music and the musicians be. Highly recommended.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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