Thelonious Monk: It’s Monk’s Time

Thelonious Monk
It's Monk's Time

Charlie Rouse was forever underrated, more than anyone else the victim of the succession of recordings he and Thelonious Monk made with invariably first-rate bassists and drummers. If reviewers wearied of the quartet on record, Rouse got blamed. Yet there is seldom any basis to tire of the music, other than comparison with something even better by the same men.

Monk’s need of a simpatico partner was always a question, with John Coltrane being the most extraordinary colleague of all. Monk insisted that sidemen improvise using his melodic lines, not just the underlying harmonic structures (among numerous players whose piano language isn’t Monk’s and who don’t get anything from his music, several couldn’t have functioned without Monk’s — usually unacknowledged — discovery of more chords under other men’s older tunes).

Coltrane fit well, on his way to modes of improvisation which could be said to distil what Monk was doing melodically and harmonically. This was no pure unalloyed advance — if you want good brandy all very well, but don’t make it with, far less abolish, the best claret. Johnny Griffin, a bop firebrand who is nowadays also a very seductive Hawkins/ Webster balladeer, was regarded as too much a bebop improviser on harmonies for nitpicking to miss cavilling at during his brief Monk time. Well, Monk very much liked Bud Powell’s playing of his tunes, and while Griffin twenty years ago was wary of speaking about Monk (maybe just a touchy topic generally, in his experience) he affirmed boldly in words that “Bud Powell was the pappy!” A wonderful musician!

The major flak about incompatibility was directed toward Orrin Keepnews’ project of a session for Riverside with Monk and Gerry Mulligan, commonly described as wanton and gimmicky until Keepnews was heard saying he’d discovered the depth of their friendship and put them together. Clark Terry, before and since he recorded a quartet set with Monk, has been less flightily playful.

Rouse was, on the other hand, criticised for having been excessively compatible, although when Humphrey Lyttelton was looking for an example of a recording where the sideman starred above the leader he chose a Rouse title with Monk. Rouse’s masterpiece is on an obscure session with the brilliant short-lived bop pianist Sonny Clark, where his closeness to Coleman Hawkins is most obvious, the main difference simply a matter of Rouse having edited out some of the expressive harmonics under and over his saxophone tone. Listen to Rouse with Hawkins and Phil Woods on Benny Carter’s brilliant Further Definitions set (where the pianist’s the forever underrated Dick Katz, whose notes are a welcome bonus on this grand edition). Rouse’s style contained a lot of history, and rather than being (like other men’s work) a distillation of jazz hitherto, Monk’s was a critical synthesis.

When he chose to launch Monk with his Riverside label by recording him on a known repertoire, Keepnews had assumed Monk might even be an Ellington scholar (and when will Columbia Legacy give us Ellington’s Piano in the Foreground, itself arguably influenced by Monk — or have I missed it?). Monk, however, needed the sheet music for at least some of his Plays Duke Ellington record. This can suggest that resemblances between them might have to do with their having found many of the same things. Then again, Monk did like to read scores, which might have helped him in that exposure of further harmonic potentials mentioned above as his unspoken gift to many. Why couldn’t a jazzman have the same intimate relation to printed notes some other musicians have?

The first bonus track on It’s Monk’s Time, “Epistrophy”, opens with hints of Count Basie’s piano style, not parodied but re-harmonised. Listen to the walking bass throughout this CD (Butch Warren was very good, but then Monk chose no one incompatible) and indeed throughout Monk’s recorded output. The genius is in taking up this standard jazz combination of moving bass and a telling minimum of notes and — without arresting the very precise swing — adding. It’s all about doing more, adding rhythmic subtlety as well as harmonic expression. This is very difficult, to say the least. It’s very difficult to impart what Basie imparted with a few notes, and far harder to add notes without destructive effect.

A discussion of the opening track, “Lulu’s Back in Town”, could make a meal of reading the song as a statement by Monk — which it might well be — of what I’m trying to say. He begins with his own curious version of stride piano, usually and even as a cliché attributed to the influence of James P. Johnson. In fact, he hung out with Johnson (Mark Shane nowadays is a splendid player of Johnson’s music) and also knew Jelly Roll Morton. And somehow he contrived a version of playing stride piano with seventh chords in the left hand (Marcus Roberts performs a virtuoso version of this). The result is an expression of something not old-style so much as poignant and swinging, good-humoured and emotionally complex, which can be witty without being sardonic. Lo and behold the dance of the solo boom-cha bass introduction stops and at once restarts with the quartet, Rouse immensely warm and sympathetic and the whole four man unit wonderfully together. The older-sounding style’s not an interlude or eccentricity — it’s a misunderstood introduction. Listen also to the two takes of “Shuffle Boil” for ensemble theme statements where Rouse plays a high-register line with a plaintive strained sound like a child’s singing. Did he think some noises on tenor belonged to childhood? And then there’s the harmonic augmentation of Coleman Hawkins’ “Stuffy” almost cornily renamed “Stuffy Turkey” — with the bellylaugh of an introvert.

Time Magazine had featured Monk on its front cover just before Columbia got around to producing the sessions now duly represented on this CD. The album title probably punned on that and on the phrase as meaning Monk’s timing. In the notes to this issue, Dick Katz says that it is always Monk’s time.

Time can also be the focus of a kind of deathwish religion much appreciated by rackets feeding both nostalgia and neophilia, the alleged new and the accused old. Fundamentalists of this cult develop sentry-like talents of dutifully listening for sounds which betray heresy and demand denunciation. It makes them deaf. There are raging epidemics of partial deafness. From my own experience, I would like to conclude a too brief appreciation of this CD with a tribute to the enterprise of Dr. Keepnews working for a remedy, and to Professor Monk for helping make hearing worthwhile.