Picks and Pans Review: A Portrait of Thelonious
The trick in jazz, as in other art forms, is to develop a style that absorbs one's predecessors, challenges one's contemporaries and inspires one's successors. Thelonious Sphere Monk, who died in February at age 64, did that to a rare degree just by being his own funny, noble, sentimental, intransigent, inscrutable self. Born in North Carolina and raised in New York, Monk was inaccurately lumped with the beboppers he first played with (Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie) and did not come into his own on records until the '50s. Herewith some examples of his genius (not all are still in print). Two discs' worth of previously released material (1952-61) are on the Memorial Album. It's an excellent introduction to Monk. Highlights include his reticent, ironic pokes and pulls, jagged rhythms, odd pauses, gentle tinkling trills and deep single-note soundings in the bass. The melodies he composed could range from cockeyed optimism (Little Rootie Tootie) to comic monster-lurching (Brilliant Comers) to introspective romanticism (Ruby, My Dear). Everywhere propulsive drive blends with economy of means (most Monk tunes are ingeniously simple lines, strategically bent). In his playing one can easily detect glints of Art Tatum, stride and boogie-woogie, though often in the form of parody. Monk also set high standards as band leader, and the ensemble playing here, with artists such as Clark Terry, Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, John Coltrane, Art Blakey and Max Roach, is one of the Memorial Album's main assets.
Monk was most revealing, though, when he played unaccompanied. In the Milestone twofer Pure Monk, one sees his shy, inchoate, melancholy exploration. Fascinating, too, is the way Monk reworks standards, of which there are 12 here. Monk moved to Columbia Records in the '60s and achieved his widest level of public fame. Monk's Dream and Straight, No Chaser are among the best of the period, featuring the shamefully underrated tenor sax work of Charlie Rouse. Monk began to ail and withdraw in 1973. He made his last formal appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1976 (a lackluster performance) and never touched a piano thereafter. Something in Blue, a reissue on JazzMan of a 1971 trio date with bassist Al McKibbon and Blakey on drums, is one of Monk's last records. In the title cut, his respect for his predecessors shines forth, especially in his oom-paahing left hand. It's a touching record.
If you want to start with just one single disc of Monk, the best choice is probably Reflections, Vol. 1, a Prestige reissue from 1952-53. It has Monk playing at his happiest, his two most sympatico and stimulating drummers (Art Blakey and Max Roach), a jaunty Rollins on sax and the once-heard-never-forgotten French horn of Julius Watkins. It's incomparable. Finally, for a glimpse of how Monk's compositions became springboards for other masters, try A Portrait of Thelonious by Bud Powell, an ornate genius who died in 1966.
On Newsstands Now
- Brad's Devotion: The Inside Story
- Oklahoma Tornado: Heroic Rescues
- Michael Douglas on Catherine's Health
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine