17 April 2008

Solo Monk: An Appreciation

Thelonious Monk: "Don't Blame Me"
From Thelonious Monk Live in '66, Jazz Icons Series

There is perhaps no greater joy to be found in the history of jazz performance than a solo performance of Thelonious Monk. Even when playing one of his most introspective and quiet tunes, like Monk's Mood, for instance, Monk had the ability to surprise the listener in a way that would bring a soft chuckle, even as he was pouring his soul into the piano. This recording of the standard "Don't Blame Me," recorded in 1966 for Danish television and released on the Jazz Icons series a few years ago, is a favorite of mine. I think this performance is representative of the inimitable qualities of a Monk performance which get thrown about whenever his music is discussed: the employment of negative space to give greater meaning to his phrases, spontaneity, complex harmonies, and the stride-piano foundation which is evident in most of his solo playing.

Following a familiarly Monkish cadenza, Monk begins the Fields/McHugh composition with a simply stated melody in the first few bars, but quickly moves into variations on the melody. His improvisation on standards such as this deftly combines melodic variation interposed with complex rhythmic and harmonic figures which keep things interesting while expanding on the song's structure (see for instance the phrase beginning at 0:35). Monk's melodic conception was surpassed by only a very few (only Sonny Rollins comes to mind right now). He interspersed and juxtaposed phrases so well that he could create something new night after night without having to constantly reinvent himself. This recording is a perfect example of this trait; Monk does not pull off any technical feats of strength, or use any phrase of his we've never heard before, but it is the combination and sequence of his phrases that keeps the listener interested.

Monk employs his left hand in a quarter-note rhythm that comes straight out of the school of stride piano from which he drew much of his early inspiration. This is a common theme of solo Monk (for a more forceful example, listen to his shift into a stride rhythm in the solo section of "Monk's Point" in Solo Monk). This, to me, is emblematic of the oral tradition which signifies jazz, as well as what some have referred to as the democratic structure of jazz music. Though he sprung from the same milieu that spawned stride pianists like James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith, Monk would never be confused with those or any other pianist of the style. But in his own individual way, Monk combined the style of these pianists with his sense of melody and harmony to create a style which pays tribute to these pianists while thrusting their music into a new dimension. Monk's solo playing is a perfect example of the jazz musician reshaping the music of his adolescence into form relevant to his own time, as well as the reinvention that has kept jazz a vital art form into the twenty-first century.

Besides demonstrating the continuity inherent in jazz, Monk's use of the stride rhthym in the left hand is indicative of what some musicians (including Billy Taylor and Wynton Marsalis, among others) have identified as the democratic aspect of jazz. This is not a new idea, indeed, the U.S. State Department cited the "democratic nature of jazz" when it proposed sponsoring international tours of jazz musicians as a means of promoting goodwill during the Cold War. This democratic theory of jazz states that a jazz ensemble, by promoting free individual expression in the framework of a cooperative group, mimics the ideals of personal liberty and cooperation inherent in the American Constitution. Monk's solo style, at first glance an exercise in total personal freedom, upon further examination fits well into this archetype. Throughout the entire performance, while expounding on fanciful melodies and accentuating ambiguous harmonies, the listener hears the constant (if subtle) beat of the quarter note in the left hand. These quarter notes are not only keeping time but also imposing discipline on Monk's right hand, keeping it within the rhythmic framework of the song and preventing Monk from improvising his way into a black hole of abstraction.

Although this democratic theory of jazz is of limited use, especially when considered outside of its original Cold War framework, it fits well into Monk's style. Though he is perhaps the ultimate individualist of jazz, Monk at the same time created a music that is both accessible and challenging to the scores of musicians that followed him. It is this quality of Monk which keeps his music fresh a half century after its creation, presenting a firm structure while allowing the improviser unlimited freedom. It is why I can never tire of his music.

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