Today is the birthday of Thelonious Monk, the fourth jazz-man I’ve posted about and probably the one I can say least about. But I’ll start by saying that Monk came my way doused in aura. My friend Jerry Robinson wrote a poem for/about him called “Straight No Chaser” and we—Gypsy Press—printed it as a broadside, 1982. At that point I probably hadn’t heard any Monk except as background music in secondhand bookstores and at parties.
Come to think of it, deciding I had to have this album came about by hearing it playing at Best Video in Hamden, CT, and it was just one of those things. You know how you’re sometimes susceptible to music when you’re browsing and so forth. The music just kept getting better, more riveting, the longer I listened to it.
Thing is, as far as the history of jazz is concerned, Monk was already a “been there, done that” kind of guy when he started recording for Columbia, and Monk’s Dream was his first release on that label. Maybe so, but how would I know? I mean, if this is the kind of “mainstream” version of his work (all but one song on here was recorded by him on earlier albums on other labels as any maven would know), then I’m the kind of audience such an album exists for. Like, man, I don’t know nothin bout this shit.
So I’m just a middle-aged white guy in a video store in a suburb of New Haven, y’know? And this kind of music—Monk’s music—is maybe taking me back to when I hung out with artists and black poets in Philly, and it’s maybe taking me back to a phase when books—books of odd, gnomic poetry and verse experiments—were major magic to me. And so Monk is part of something I will forever value. The head of my youth, maybe call it. The changes that head was going through. Listening to that piano-playing and not wanting it to find a tune, but just wanting it to keep on speaking. Monk’s piano is rhythmic and percussive, yes, which is something I’m bound to like, but it’s so flexible and mobile, so unpredictable (to my ears anyway) and the combo with him—drums, sax, bass—just seem to hover around fleshing out the path he’s taking.
The track I like best is solo Monk on Side One: “Body and Soul” isn’t a Monk composition but he makes it his own and the feeling I get from it is somewhere between classical music and the kind of bebop that Monk helped solidify as a style. It’s deep and still feels exploratory, like it’s the aural equivalent of expressionist painting where you take something in front of you and turn it into a visual composition of paint and brushstrokes, riffing on the way, I suppose, notes and chords set off other notes and chords the way colors and shapes do, or can. I don’t know the tune of “Body and Soul” and I can’t piece it together from Monk’s rendition, but I look at that in the same way that I can’t “see” the subject of an abstract expressionist painting. What I see/hear is the rendering. And it’s fascinating.
As to the tracks where Monk is working with his collaborators—I’d go with “Bolivar Blues,” the opener on Side Two, formerly called “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are” on an early recording and named for the Bolivar Hotel where Monk used to hang with his rich-lady patron Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter. And if that doesn’t say elegant weltschmerz blues I don’t know what does. But I can’t really say what’s going on on that particular track so I’ll let Matt Cibula over on PopMatters say it for us:
Monk’s “reinvention of ‘Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are’ (now just called, boringly, “Blue Bolivar Blues”) as a juke-joint boogie-woogie, with trills and frippery all over from the very beginning. When Monk follows Rouse’s preacher-man solo with his own, he turns it into a math lesson, a pointillist exercise that is also packed with fun and some impossible slalom runs through the complicated chord structure. One 41-second passage consists entirely of single-note triplets scooting all over the place before resolving themselves in a messy chord. It’s just about the most fun one could ever have in jazz; and that’s all before he does a kind of parody of his own be-bop key-stabbings at the 6:30 mark.”
It’s that passage of “single-note triplets scooting all over the place” and the “pointillist exercise” bit that I’m completely onboard for. And maybe pointillism is the best analogy to Monk’s technique, except that pointillism rarely, if ever, avoids depiction, and Monk comes at me more abstract than that.
Cibula makes the excellent point that Monk was a composer, a pianist, and a bandleader. And that’s the order in which he’s mostly regarded. Which is news to me because I always thought the latter two were more important for defining him as who he is. The fact that others would play his compositions and work their changes on them, fine. But my associations with Monk are as the guy who plays piano like that, and that’s the reason to listen to him. On Monk’s Dream his band has been with him long enough—two years—to know how to work within his compositions and to play well with him. That it seems is what made Monk’s Dream sell better than anything Monk did. You could say the public caught up with him, but you could also say he made an album for general consumption and appreciation where he brought together all three characteristics—probably “Monk’s Dream,” the opener is the “song” I recognize most as his—in an enduring mix.