Tuesday, 7 June 2011


It seems presumptuous to write about Thelonious Monk.  He baffles the brain.  His playing can seem disjointed, halting, spikey, unpolished (like this).  His pieces are full of strange harmonies and jumps.  In some way they can seem uncomfortable - especially if you're trying for the first time to turn those dots on the page into something with a shred of musical sense.

In "Jazz", Garry Giddins and Scott DeVeaux tell us that Monk is the second most widely performed jazz composer, second to Duke Ellington.  Consider though, that Ellington wrote over 1500 pieces: Monk wrote around 70.  What is the something that keeps performers coming back and back to those strange and beguiling pieces?  If you go and look at the leadsheet for "Reflections" you'll see just 32 bars sparsely sprinkled with notes. Yet this musical DNA, in the hands and minds of talented artists, gives rise to a whole family of musical offspring, each different, each resonant with Monkishness. Try Reflections enigmatically from Donald Fagen & Steve Khan, or quirkily from (anonomous ukelelist) or smoothly, beautifully from Wynton Marsalis.  Seems you can even  dance to it (if you have to).  

I don't have the musical theory to know why this is so: why Monk's DNA, his musical memes, are so fruitful.  I just rejoice in them, and in that feeling of triumph when somehow, from the jagged jumpiness of the notes on the page, I manage to get something that briefly reveals that flow and that Monkish feel.  Which of these many versions inspires me most?  Why, this one: Caleb Curtis's dreamy, beautiful rendition.

Oh, and Thelonious Monk's middle name was Sphere. Really.  How cool is that?

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