Thelonious Monk: Solo Monk

Thelonious Monk
Solo Monk

Thelonious Monk was more composer-pianist than pianist-composer, which can also be said of Gerry Mulligan when he laid his saxophone aside (he was presumably influenced by his friend Monk, whom he sounds like on piano on a few nice records I wish I owned). It was a matter of having worked out the music, maybe even incidentally on a piano, rather than having at hand (in the fingers) the sort of pianistic resources which can translate lots of scores recognisably into audible music (if not the composer’s idiom or sort of idiom).

Monk’s early job playing piano for a traveling evangelist (more salubrious than Brahms’s Hamburg bar/ brothel) could have been held by a wide range of people; nobody out of immediate earshot had reason to know of qua pianist. When he threw himself into the wider ken in his middle twenties, he was very competent in harmony and the theory that started a legend of academy schooling. It seems his later introversion and tendency to withdraw had its precedent in an intense preoccupation at the heart of all that learning. Self-taught composers have written symphonies well worth performing, but they have not as a rule had careers as performers, much less performers self-taught on their instruments — and at the same time both working out their musical ideas and trying to work out how to realise them. The major contemporary comparison is between Monk and Clarence Profit, whose contemporaries compared him with Art Tatum (as maybe even better than Tatum!). Profit died too young, leaving a disciple in George Wallington, lots of dispersed influence (maybe on Monk, too) and enough on record to fill one CD: the timing and phrasing are uniquely subtle but the music’s more in a conservative but advanced swing idiom that a record company would pay for (and not all of that material was issued at the time). It would have been wonderful if Profit had been recorded live, as Monk was when he’d been engaged by musicians to play piano for the young lions who jammed after hours for the music’s sake at Minton’s Playhouse.

Some brilliant accompaniments (behind Dizzy Gillespie on “Stardust”) started the legend of Monk’s competence in a style mastered by Bud Powell, but associated with Teddy Wilson (before Wilson bizarrely took lessons in orthodox European fingering and forfeited the miraculous command of timing which came back to him only now and again after about 1945).

These records in fact demonstrate what an outstanding pianist Kenneth Kersey was. Others from the same source on which Monk plays show him compensating for lack of conventional technique with his own compositional ideas. The results are amazing, but long after Monk’s death, his early collaborator Milt Jackson (a great vibes player who was more than competent as a conventional jazz pianist) would still echo the opinion that Monk wasn’t much of a pianist. He couldn’t do everything, and Dizzy Gillespie’s ideal was to have enough money to employ both Monk and a conventionally competent pianist with his early big band. Monk would have given him so many more ideas, said Gillespie, whom Woody Herman so esteemed as a composer as to have suggested he set aside his horn and concentrate on writing.

Apparently it was daring of Coleman Hawkins to give Monk his studio debut in 1944. Blue Note took him up in the late 1940s, really late-ish in Monk’s own development, and didn’t make money from him. Aged 37, Monk had his first solo date for a French company. The results are not fast, though metaphorically, up to speed. The Teddy Wilson sort of thing Bud Powell could produce for Blue Note had vanished. This was (to crib a later album title) pure Monk. It’s very listenable. Prestige recorded Monk in trio sessions bettered than anybody, fleet and full of unconventional brilliance needing bass and drums and (at best) enhanced by Percy Heath and Art Blakey (and how much did he too learn from Monk?).

Riverside let Monk loose on what are maybe his best unaccompanied recordings, and single items such as crop up in recorded or filmed concerts recur and were a feature of the Columbia recordings. All of these turned up together a few years ago on a 2-CD set which is certainly worth finding (which can be done at modest expense in Europe). With them comes the entire contents of this new presentation of the sessions from which the original vinyl issue was drawn. Pete Welding reviewed that and is quoted in the extensive notes, “a bad day at the studio”. The fact that the notes report Monk in the studio four days rather than one seems ominous; in fact, it seems very like my own obsession with Monk’s music. But on a hearing after drafting this introductionn I am amazed no longer to hear great longueurs listening through the original sequence of titles, or an excessively attenuated technique. Maybe I wasn’t ready, if I might indulge in understatement. This CD is a real prospect for someone looking for, above all, gentle charm. The boom-cha version of “Dinah” which opens seems incredibly refreshing, and some of the more ambitious playing on the now-included second take is even more interesting. Another of the outtakes has one of those marvelous moments where it’s maybe impossible to tell whether Monk made a mistake or had a particularly startling novel good idea. Only the accomplished player ever poses quite that question.

This might well be Columbia Legacy’s best throw (other than the complete solo piano recordings 2-CD set) for someone interested in, rather than merely curious about, Monk as unaccompanied solo pianist. The competition was recorded in England by Black Lion, a solo piano CD as well as trios with Art Blakey and Al McKibbon and “Blue Sphere” is one of the last masterpieces with its slow two-handed swing. One reissue packages that stuff with the 1954 Paris session. I’ve not time to compare the Riverside solo material, the whole lot recorded after Monk had purged his playing of anybody else’s licks or tricks. It’s nice, too, to crane the ears with the more virtuoso support he gave Don Byas and Lips Page early in his general obscurity.

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