A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

On June 1, 1959, Thelonious Monk was in a New York recording studio, the first day of what turned out to be a three-day session, leading a quintet in five of his own compositions, eventually to be released as 5 By Monk By 5 on the Riverside label. It was tenor saxist Charlie Rouse’s studio debut as part of Monk’s then-working band, which included Sam Jones on bass and Art Taylor on drums, with cornetist Thad Jones added as special guest. This was the first time Monk had led a studio date in nearly two years, and according to most discographies his next opportunity wouldn’t occur until October 1962. But those discographies are wrong.

Thelonious Monk: Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 (Saga) documents the all-but-forgotten July 27, 1959 session which was meant to provide filmmaker Roger Vadim with the musical soundtrack for his otherwise already completed film. The personnel was the same band (minus Thad Jones) from the June recording for Riverside, but this time with the unusual addition of French tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen on several pieces. (Additional background on this session, including speculation on Wilen’s unexpected participation, can be found in my “A Fickle Sonance” column of June 2015.) The music Monk recorded on this day consisted of six preexisting compositions, one piano blues improvised in the studio, and a brief spiritual that Monk used to play as a teenager accompanying a traveling evangelist. Although it subsequently was used in the film, this music has not been released on disc until now, along with a few alternate takes, and one revealing rehearsal excerpt, of which more later.

Monk, of course, is one of those precious few artists whose every note is not just valuable, but treasurable, so the release of this material is hugely gratifying, and its long neglect baffling. Which is not to suggest that there is anything radically different or unique about this music, in the larger terms of Monk’s legacy. But critics who complain about his oft-repeated, limited repertoire fail to recognize that, like Monet’s haystacks and Mondrian’s grids, each of the pianist’s performances is a variation on a theme, no two quite alike. And an intimate familiarity with Monk’s procedures – his abrupt harmonies, jagged rhythms, bristling attack, and surreal imagination – offers a greater awareness of the nuances and idiosyncrasies that fuel the drama of his genius. Of the great jazz pianists, only Count Basie and Monk made the smallest of details, the slightest gestures, so significant.

So, although its connection with the film is moot, the value of the music on its own, here, is undeniable. While many live recordings from 1958-62 exist, as noted above studio appearances in this period were few and far between, and on those tracks where Wilen sits out we hear the only available performances of the short-lived Monk/Rouse/Jones/Taylor quartet. (One reason why it was so short-lived may be gleaned here as well.) On the opening romping “Rhythm-a-ning,” Wilen proves immediately that he fits comfortably into this august company, and Monk is in top form, caressing and crushing chords, with an entrance into his solo that seems to emerge from another dimension. The ringing notes on “Crepuscule with Nellie” illustrate his special combination of touch and pedal technique, and the solo blues (“Six in One”) is Monk in his purest mode, with cryptic allusions to “Straight, No Chaser,” “Blue Monk,” and no doubt a few others. “Well You Needn’t” betrays an obvious edit at the very beginning, crashing directly into Rouse’s leaping solo, behind which Monk’s accompaniment is thematic counterpoint, not mere comping. The two solo performances of “Pannonica” are a lesson in subtle rubato, especially the richer, tender second take. The two band versions have an awkward feel, with Taylor’s pedestrian cymbal beat at odds with the piano, as if he were simply going through the motions; Monk responds on take two with flourishes and fusillades.

Which brings us to “Light Blue.” It was a relatively recent composition; according to Robin D.G. Kelley’s fact-packed bio of Monk it was probably first performed in 1957, and recorded by the quartet with Johnny Griffin on tenor sax at the Five Spot in August 1958. The 12-minute rehearsal excerpt provided here plays out a strange side-show.

It begins innocuously enough. Taylor seems to be testing the tuning of his drums: bing, bang, boom / bing, bang, boom. But Monk hears something in that unintentional beat that intrigues him. “Keep playing that, just keep playing that.” Taylor, probably mystified as to Monk’s intention, complies, and Monk starts playing the theme to “Light Blue,” delaying his entrance so that Taylor’s beats are at an oblique angle, out of synch. Taylor, sensing possible confusion, stops. Monk insists, “Why’d you stop? Keep playing that.” Taylor starts again, the same three-beat pattern, as Monk listens, deciding where to place his phrases, but Taylor stops. “I’m trying to dig what you’re doing,” Monk explains. “I’ll come in, just keep playing.” He does, though Taylor is obviously uncomfortable with the off-kilter rhythms and stops again. “If it mixes you up, just close your ears, don’t close your ears to the tempo, just so you can’t hear what we’re playing and play that ...”

But once the band starts, Taylor tries to coordinate his beat to their phrasing. Monk doesn’t want that. “I told you, don’t listen, just keep counting to yourself.” Monk has a vision of cross-rhythmic possibilities, now knows what he wants; he hears how Taylor has changed his pattern, and sings the off-beats to Taylor. Taylor adjusts, but drops a few swear words into his responses. Monk: “You dig where I’m trying to go?” Monk swears back at him. There’s more discussion. “I’m trying to keep that time.” More starting and stopping. Taylor modifies the beat, Monk continues to sing the complicated rhythm he wants. They try again. There’s a kind of compromise that now fits until Taylor loses his place. He tries alternating the beats between the snare drum and floor tom for variety, and simply lays off the first beat, playing [one], Two, THREE/FOUR. Monk explains the off-beats he wants, but Taylor, whose natural inclination is to synchronize the rhythm, is flummoxed.

Following this rehearsal, there are two “takes” of the tune. On the longer of the two, recorded first, Taylor begins by playing only two beats, not three, behind the theme, on the THREE/FOUR. He drops out completely at the beginning of Monk’s solo, then plays simple cymbal taps on each beat. Monk apparently isn’t paying attention to him, or has given up explaining the mix he imagines. When the sax re-enters, Taylor switches to ONE/TWO on the drums until the end. On the second, shorter version, Taylor plays the original three-beat – [one], Two, THREE/FOUR – continues the pattern through Monk’s solo, then at the start of Rouse’s solo is fed up enough to start banging randomly. The take ends in mid-phrase. But the session continued.

It’s certainly not the only time Monk confronted his drummer with rhythmic requests. In Robin D.G. Kelley’s book, Paul Motian relates how Monk asked him to alter the specific accents of his cymbal beat during a weeklong gig in January 1960, and both Frankie Dunlop and Ben Riley tell of the unprepared on-the-gig learning process Monk subjected them to when each joined the band. It makes perfect sense that he would be so acutely particular when it came to rhythm; after all, harmony and melody notwithstanding, Monk was, above all else, the master of timing.

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Speaking of Monk, it’s hard to believe that once upon a time his compositions were considered terra incognita, when today we’re inundated with all-Monk recordings (with, one suspects, more still on the way, this being the centenary of his birth). Try Braxton, Blythe, Blake, and Braam – and that’s just a few of the killer B’s. Of course, crusaders like Steve Lacy, Misha Mengelberg, and Alexander von Schlippenbach explored the Monk canon with dogged persistence and imagination for decades. As for the latter two, you’d think pianists would be wary of attempting to carve their own niche out of Monk’s inimitable precedent, but from Bud Powell through several generations, ticklers as different as Randy Weston, Stan Tracey, Tommy Flanagan, Tete Montoliu, Giorgio Gaslini, Per Henrik Wallin, Umberto Petrin, Uwe Oberg, Howard Riley, Eric Reed, and Peter Madsen among others have focused on the Monk song book. (Isn’t it about time Marilyn Crispell, Irène Schweizer, and Kris Davis took the plunge?) And recitals come from other unexpected places: ex-Police guitarist Andy Summers has a respectable album of Monk covers, and the Kronos Quartet took a whack at him too (with rather more tepid results).

Which is not to say that all things are equal, and that every Monk cover is distinctive or discriminating. In fact, there have been so many Monk-related albums over the years that it takes something out of the ordinary to start the juices flowing. So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to mention three such programs, not necessarily new, that might have slipped by unnoticed.

On the duo album Monkinus (CIMP), recorded in 2006, bassist Dominic Duval goads and guides tenor saxophonist Jimmy Halperin along circuitous paths through thirteen Monk tunes; Halperin’s characteristically fluid Tristanoid linearity ventures into previously uncharted territory. Tenor saxist Tim Warfield fronts a conventional quintet through an off-beat Monk selection on 2014’s Spherical (Criss Cross), with sly trumpeter Eddie Henderson and probing pianist Orrin Evans further extending the compositions. Warfield channels Coltrane on a second take of “Off Minor,” but elsewhere his playing and the group concept confirm that the New Mainstream’s primary point of departure is no longer ‘50s Miles Davis, but ‘60s Wayne Shorter. And then there’s Sharp? Monk? Sharp! Monk! (Clean Feed), vintage 2004, where Elliott Sharp’s acoustic guitar shatters Monk’s melodies into glistening splinters with explosive hammer-ons, ringing harmonics, spidery fingerpicking, and percussive clatter. In a crowded field of seldom truly satisfying participants, these three are up to the challenge.

Art Lange©2017

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