EDITORIAL

Making of Thelonious Monk Greatest Hits Playlist

By Julion St Hill

Making of Thelonious Monk Greatest Hits Playlist

 

by T. S. Monk 


When it comes to explaining my ‘Thelonious Monk Greatest Hits’ playlist, my job is inescapably threefold. I wear 3 hats. 

Number one, I am his son. Number two, I had the extraordinary privilege of performing with him. And number three, I am a fan - like millions of others. 

As his son, I tend to love everything he composed because I grew up listening to all the music, starting in my mom’s tummy. 


Instantly, I became familiar with the music, along with my sister, “Boo Boo” Barbara Monk. The entire Monk family, both nuclear and extended, became  indoctrinated with the music. As a drummer and fellow musician, performing with Monk and so many others, playing Monk’s music was and still is an absolute joy. Why? Because every tune is swinging. And all the tunes are intellectually challenging. They are instructive, both melodically and harmonically, and they are enlightening from a spiritual standpoint. 


Now from a fan’s perspective, so many of Thelonious Monk’s tunes have become what is called “standard repertoire”. Every composition is a masterpiece, and picking the one you like the most actually rotates and changes from day to day, and sometimes favorites shift moment to moment. I think this is a true conundrum for all of Monk’s fans.


Thelonious Monk is now the second most recorded composer in the history of jazz and his composition, “Round Midnight”, is the most recorded song in jazz history. He is second only to Duke Ellington, one of his mentors. The reason? Genius. Pure genius. “Monk’s Dream” is my personal favorite here. Especially his classic quartet recording on “It’s Monk’s Time” with Charlie Rouse, Frankie Dunlop, and Larry Gales. 


Thelonious Monk’s piano playing is still the most unique in all of jazz. Impossible to copy. Uncompromising, and incomparable. Thelonious Monk may be the most unique instrumentalist in the history of “western music” period. So give a listen, and enjoy The Greatest. 



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Jazz and the Love of Monk

By Sierre Monk

Jazz and the Love of Monk

 

Thelonious Monk was my first jazz love. In the past decade or so, I have found great joy in listening to a wide variety of jazz music, and I love the time I get to spend researching and exploring the records and the artists who recorded them, but it is all still thanks to the High Priest – Thelonious Monk.

As a high school student, I developed an interest in jazz with a few friends. Our ultimate goal was to have our own original punk rock band. All we knew of jazz was that it was complicated, so the idea was that if we could play jazz, we could play really cool punk music. But we ended up falling in love with jazz. Monk was the catalyst. We listened to Miles Davis’ “Four and More”. We took in early Dizzy Gillespie. A friend’s dad had a bunch of 70’s fusion records that we played repeatedly. But when we first heard Monk, we were hooked. It happened by accident, and it wasn’t even Monk playing…

In our junior year of high school, some of my friends and I decided to get together and try to jam like our heroes on the classic records of the fifties and sixties, and eventually found enough people to make a quintet of bari sax, trumpet, guitar (me), bass, and drums. We weren’t very well-versed in jazz tradition, so in deciding what to play, we all simply suggested tunes we had heard elsewhere, and sometimes we would randomly flip through a Real Book and try things that looked interesting. One of those chosen out of visual interest from the unique score was Thelonious Monk’s classic minor blues – “Blue Monk”. I was fascinated by the simple chromatic patterns. And when the melody broke away, it almost seemed like it was deliberately avoiding traditional chord tones. Yet, it was so infectiously hummable! It was constantly stuck in my head. How had this effect been achieved? How could this tune be ignoring everything I thought I knew about what made music ‘catchy’, and still be among the catchiest tunes I’d ever heard? What music theory had gone into this? Nothing I had learned in music theory books or classes up to that point could explain Monk’s music.

Over the years, I continued absorbing more and more jazz - free jazz, especially, and the music of the spiritual jazz and black power movements in the 1970’s (I know there are many opinions about the use of those terms. I use them as colloquial descriptors, and nothing more or less). I got heavy into the early music of Ornette Coleman, the late pseudo-religious work of John Coltrane, the high-art whimsy of Eric Dolphy, and the steam-bath aggressiveness of Albert Ayler. Pharoah Sanders’ long meditative tracks started to be a constant on my speakers. Don Cherry’s disjointed harmonic experiments, Hannibal Marvin Peterson’s Sunrise Orchestra, the infinite palette of four decades of Sun Ra, the brilliant artist-centered work spearheaded by Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell as the founders and main artists on the Strata-East – Archie Shepp, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Cecil Taylor, Lloyd McNeil, Marion Brown … it was all-encompassing, and for whatever reason, a source of unbridled joy. It taught me to be calm in the face of frustration and to seek out the order in apparent chaos. 

Through these discoveries, Monk drifted from my periphery a bit. As I began to collect records, I also found great pleasure in reading about the musicians I was listening to. Several books on Charles Mingus, for example, made his music come to life for me like never before. Robin DG Kelley’s formidably-sized Monk biography was a project I took when I was supposed to be writing my master’s thesis in mathematics, but it soon became a fabulous escape. I finished the thesis, but the lasting experience of that part of my life was Kelley’s book. 

One of the most poignant parts of the book for me was Monk’s reaction to the “new thing”, specifically the earliest appearances on disc and in person in New York of Ornette Coleman. Paraphrasing, Monk essentially declared that while he liked the music of Ornette and his colleagues, he felt it wasn’t really so new, and that he had been doing similar things for almost 20 years. I didn’t agree with that at all at the time, but I had a few Monk records that I enjoyed, and I listened to a few of them (especially “Criss-Cross” and “The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall”) while reading the book. All of the magic of Monk’s music from my younger days came flooding back during those sessions, and Monk started to once again become a central focus of my collecting and listening. He was right, of course. “Blue Monk”, as well as so many of his best melodies, especially the lurching ballad “’Round Midnight”, are basically the be-bop versions of free jazz. Non-chord tones, used as a bridge to an unconventional melodic end, dominate Monk’s music, as do huge interval leaps, tone clustering, etc. All of these elements would be amplified in the free jazz movement, but with hindsight firmly in my corner, I agree with Monk. He was their originator in a small ensemble playing.

Some years after my initial foray into jazz as a collector and listener, I began to seriously consider taking up the double bass, as I’d always wanted. Being a guitarist for so long, I’d played in my high school and college jazz ensembles, but never really felt satisfied with the role of my instrument. After likely getting sick of hearing me talk about it so much, my wife located a cheap used double bass for me. I began taking lessons, and thanks to my prior musical training, was able to play basic walking patterns quickly. My instructor suggested that I try my hand at live performance and mentioned that some of his students needed a bassist for an ensemble. He put me in contact with them, and at our first meeting they asked what I might like to play. Of course, I suggested “Blue Monk”. 

 by Greg Trout

Greg is a jazz fan and mathematician from the US Mid-Atlantic. In addition to collecting jazz vinyl, he enjoys playing the double bass and spending quality time with his wife and pug dog. Find Greg on Instagram @jazzpeasant

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Monk Mantras + Positive Thinking

By Sierre Monk

Monk Mantras + Positive Thinking

Monk Mantras + Positive Thinking: Channel Thelonious Monk’s Creative Energy During Difficult Situations 

by Sierre Monk


When I set an intention during meditation, I use the affirmations we referenced in 5 Monk Moods You Need To Live By. Lately, ‘Continue Thankfully’ has resonated the strongest, because I find deep comfort in gratitude. As we settle into this new decade, I’d like to share what I’ve learned and what I’ve found useful when experiencing difficult emotions. 


It is important to speak up and give voice to your feelings in a manner that serves you. 


Sometimes grief inspires flow-state creativity. Other times it doesn’t. 


Sadness is sobering because it reveals things about yourself and others. 


Compassion is a bonding experience that we all deserve. 


I am so thankful for my ancestors. I like to think that the wisdom of Thelonious Monk has been passed down to me - as I learn, I use this reminder to anchor and redirect my thinking.

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“Solo Monk”

By Julion St Hill

“Solo Monk”

 

~To Sierre – I am honored to be able to share some words about your very favorite Monk album, this timeless masterpiece, “Solo Monk”

The minute hand trudged along, straining with every hesitant tick forward in what seemed like hours to me while I sat outside the principal’s office. No, I hadn’t been involved in any mischief or gotten myself into trouble. Rather, I was nervously bolted to the chair, alto saxophone gripped in my clammy fourth-grader hands, waiting to be called into her office. Our elementary school’s saxophone teacher had a diabolical plan for us to serenade the entire school throughout the year with a couple of songs over the intercom system. As a relatively novice saxophone student who had only started taking lessons the previous year, it’s not difficult to imagine how nerve-racking such a situation might have been for me, though it was one that also helped me appreciate the solo efforts of artists in general and the great Thelonious Monk in particular. To begin with, the lingering and palpable silence felt in the trice before I began playing really stayed with me, together with a sense of being utterly exposed, which was at once quite stressful but at the same time very cathartic. And though it was a very early part of my experience playing music, it nevertheless presented a chance to grow and learn from such a challenge. As I sit here now, spinning “Solo Monk” and absorbing the master tinkering at the piano keys in his own unique and special way, I think back to that time and how I was on my own, playing solo.

“Solo Monk”, recorded between October 31, 1964 and March 2, 1965, was Thelonious Monk’s eighth album with Columbia Records. Even though he released several solo albums, each one meriting particular attention, “Solo Monk” arguably stands tall as his very best unaccompanied album. It opens with the distinctive ragtime flavor of “Dinah”, where you can clearly hear the stride comping style of playing that was characteristic of performers back in the 1920s. But instead of playing it ‘straight’, Monk peppers the piece with a special sense of humor in the way he draws out the melody in several places and what I like to refer to as his own clever manipulation and use of time. C. Michael Bailey wrote in an article that Monk’s style here could be considered as ‘fractured stride … a broken or cracked stroll’, which I find to be an accurate description. It could also be articulated as if it were an inside joke he’s sharing with listeners, and I have no trouble imagining him playing while tossing a knowing glance to his audience, especially at the very end with that twinkle of notes he executes in the highest register.

 “Ruby, My Dear” is definitively my favorite Monk composition. Its endearing melody is a wistful and charming piece that Monk wrote for his first love, Ruby Richardson, most likely while he was still a teenager. She must have been quite fetching to inspire him to conjure up such beauty! I first heard the tune with the melody rendered by Coltrane on the album “Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane”, which was when I not only fell in love with the song but also first became enamored of Monk’s music. 

The version of “Ruby, My Dear” on “Solo Monk”, however, carries even more weight for me as we can hear the exposed tones of a man seeming to return to explore the inner workings of sentimental existence. Monk is unique in that every time he interprets a piece, he approaches it as if he had never played it before and so the music retains a naïve and fresh sensibility. I also appreciate his way of intimating silence as a duet partner on this album. He propels and then pulls the melody, stretching out phrases in certain places longer than in others, using silence to drive the piece forward in a way I’ve rarely heard before. The liner notes [by the late Lee Jeske] articulate this concept best in that “he can take the simplest note and make it count in every way because he knows the musical worth of each sound he makes and each silence he allows.”

Monk again inhabits a ragtime feel on “I’m Confessin’” with his own blustery gusts of sixteenth notes spread throughout the melody. Monk expertly picks and chooses certain notes to omit from the melody during this shorter tune, bringing emphasis to where the listener often least expects it. He again ends the piece tinkling the ivories at the highest octave of the piano and I can’t help but laugh to myself after he repeats the same ‘joke’ at the end of “Dinah”. “Oh, Mr. Monk, you’ve done it again!” The first piece on the B side, “I Hadn’t Anyone til You” concludes in similar melodramatic flourish, in which Monk is like a gymnast vaulting and sticking the perfect landing. As he effectively touches ground on the final notes to “Everything Happens To Me”, Monk once again gets me to beam as he brings back the now familiar trill effect once more.

“Monk’s Point” is a medium-tempo blues number whose melody should be very familiar to most Monk fans, since he would return to that same rhythmic phrase quite often (refer to “Well You Needn’t”). I had to keep moving the needle back on the turntable several times to listen carefully for the technique that Monk used, which the liner notes said he used to create a ‘continuous curve of sound’ by a ‘careful manipulation of piano keys, pedals, fingers and hand positions.’ Urban legend claims that Monk had once strived to become a piano virtuoso. While his technique might have never achieved such technical heights, listening to him create those ‘curves of sound’ put virtuosity in a distant third place behind invention and uniqueness.

In the next song, “Ask Me Now”, which flies high among my favorite pieces, Monk stretches out even further, weaving his way through the piece with his characteristic, cascading whole tone scales raining down on the keys typically to close out phrases. When restating the head toward the end, he engages a dramatic pause on the second to last phrase and completes the line by letting the notes sustain and ring out. Simply put, it’s gorgeous and here Monk is at his finest on this record. 

Monk closes out the B side with “These Foolish Things”, a well-worn ballad transformed by the ‘genius of modern music’ just as we’d expect. Again, his masterful toying with tempo suddenly converts a ballad I’ve heard a thousand times into a piece that’s charmingly unique and new. For added emphasis, he restates the melody in octaves, slowing down and then purposely avoiding resolution to that phrase to close out the album. Given what we know about Monk by now, this is a typically atypical ending to a beautiful, unaccompanied album by the master.


A short reprise back to my experience in elementary school, which seems burned into my memory banks much like Monk’s interpretation of melodies, time was fluid while I played my saxophone to the entire school over the intercom. To my own great surprise, the notes somehow managed to come out through the bell of my horn without even one squeak [a star is born :-)] and I was even greeted with warm applause when I returned to my classroom! Overcoming nerves, living in that space where I felt musically exposed was a special feeling after all. A space Monk inhabits so very naturally and freely here throughout “Solo Monk.” It’s only too bad I wasn’t yet familiar with Monk’s music; maybe I would have had to insert a couple of those whole tone scales or embellish some fun trills at the endings like him

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The Making of Misterioso

By Julion St Hill

The Making of Misterioso

 

 

By DJ Pari


It’s shortly after 7 p.m. on Aug. 7, 1958, a hot, humid summer night in New York City. Upon walking through the doors of the Five Spot Café, a popular storefront bar in the Bowery neighborhood between the East and West Village, you find yourself in a crowded, dark den shrouded in a haze of cigarette smoke, a small, but rewardingly intimate setting, the atmosphere tinged with the bite of a gin cocktail. The walls are plastered with mirrors, photos and posters, curtains, and tapestries, saw dust covers the floor, but there isn’t a stage, only some slightly raised flooring at the end of the room, barely wide enough to fit a drum kit and an old upright piano.

 


Behind it sits a towering figure, immersed in thought, backlit clouds of smoke wafting around him. It’s Monk, in deep concentration, oblivious to the faint chink of cutlery and quiet conversation and laughter still filling the air. He places his long, slender fingers on the keys, preparing to hit that first note, as his sidemen watch in anticipation. Just a few steps from the bandstand, Orrin Keepnews, record producer and owner of Riverside Records, and engineer Ray Fowler sit behind the controls of a two-track tape recorder. Keepnews is here to record Monk’s sets to be released later that year on two albums; Thelonious in Action and Misterioso. Because of when, where and how this music was recorded, and due to Monk’s selection of musicians to accompany him, the latter set today is considered one of the pianist’s most intriguing albums and the first successful attempt at capturing his live performances on tape. It is the perfect storm.

 To fully understand the magic of Misterioso, let’s step back for a minute and examine the historical context, beginning with the venue, which is as much a star on this album as the artist whose name graces the cover. The Five Spot Café, a small jazz joint with a capacity of 75 seated, was opened by Joe and Iggy Termini, two brothers with deep family roots in the Bowery, in late August 1956. Their bar quickly became a favorite hangout for many writers and beat poets, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and abstract expressionist painters like Frank Kline, Larry Rivers and Willem de Kooning. The patrons were united in their attraction to the creative consolidation of jazz in the 1950s, as propagated by the genre’s progressive modernists, most notably Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk.

 

But Monk would have to wait almost an entire year for his Five Spot debut (the honor of the club’s first long-term engagement was bestowed on pianist Cecil Taylor), until the long suspension of his cabaret card, which he had lost after a drug bust on Bud Powell several years earlier resulting in a drawn out seclusion from public performing that his wife Nellie called the un-years, had been resolved. With the help of the Termini brothers, his card was returned, and Monk took up his first six-months residency, beginning July 4, 1957, working six nights a week, four sets a night. At first, Monk performed with Cecil Payne and Duke Jordan’s group, but after two weeks he brought in his own quartet that featured John Coltrane on tenor sax, Wilbur Ware on bass and Shadow Wilson on drums. Unfortunately, there are no recordings documenting this first stint at the Five Spot; the artists’ various contractual obligations prevented such documentation.


However, Monk returned to the Five Spot in the following year, in his pocket his contract for a second engagement, lasting eight weeks. Excited with the pianist’s return, the Termini brothers hailed the Five Spot as the “home of Thelonious Monk.” And this time, the pianist took a different group, substituting Ware with 21-year old bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Wilson with Roy Haynes, a former drummer in Charlie Parker’s quintet. The most noticeable change was the replacement of Coltrane by Chicago native Johnny Griffin, who had just finished a brief stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Monk’s decision to hire Griffin proved controversial at first. When the group kicked off their residency on June 12, 1958, the saxophonist came unprepared. Unfamiliar with Monk’s repertoire, he struggled to solo over the pianist’s dissonant, asymmetrical comping and the sonic complexity of his compositions, essentially trying to learn the tunes and work through their changes on the bandstand. Monk, graciously sensitive to his sideman’s throes, often left to the bar for a drink or danced among the audience, allowing Griffin more space to play (something that he had done for Coltrane as well in the previous year). 


Keepnews’ first pursuit to record the quartet during two sets at the Five Sport on July 9 was unsatisfactory, and Monk did not approve of a release (although some of the material would eventually emerge after his death). At a second attempt a month later, during an evening show on August 7 before a capacity crowd, the group was nearing the end of the residency, really playing together, communicating with telepathic powers. And this time, Keepnews struck gold.

 

Kicking off the set is the buoyant mid-tempo swinger “Nutty;” the group takes the audience into familiar territory. Monk first cut the tune during a recording session for Prestige in 1954, making it up on the spot, and it had become an often-played staple in his repertoire. After Monk’s introduction of the theme, Griffin comes in, stating it again in unison with the pianist. Then Griffin’s solo ensues, and it’s clear that the saxophonist has overcome his battle with the challenging intricacies of Monk’s compositions, his notes floating freely and confidently, in double-time, dancing on top of the pianist’s abstract chords. Monk’s own solo, as so often, defies most rules of logical chord construction, playing expressively yet deliberate, until Griffin picks up the theme once again.

“Blues Five Spot,” the only new tune on Misterioso, is a bubbly ballad based on an unaccompanied original called “Dreamland” that Monk rarely performed, renamed here for the purpose of paying tribute to the host venue. A successful exercise in unmasked humor on the bandstand, Monk and Griffin’s solos are exceptional, despite the saxophonist’s occasional tendencies to allow his technical prowess to outshine his creative wit, with Abdul-Malik and Haynes reliably grooving deep in the tune’s undercurrent. 

What comes next is one of the album’s highlights, a first crescendo before the big detonation. The nine-minute workout of “Let’s Cool One,” first recorded for Blue Note in 1952 and a favorite that would reappear in countless carnations throughout Monk’s career, marks Griffin’s grand moment on Misterioso. Monk’s laid-back stating of the familiar melody, eventually joined by Griffin, barely pierces through the chatter from the audience, evidence of their utter unpreparedness for what comes next. Ready to take the spotlight, Griffin shouts: “I got it, I got it,” prompting Monk to lay out, which the saxophonist takes as his cue to send out a flurry of notes before launching into a ferocious sermon, squeaking and wailing and attacking the theme, exploring its melodic possibilities while Monk, sitting quietly, likely wiping his face with one of Nellie’s huge, sweat-soaked handmade handkerchiefs, watches in awe as Griffin ascends to the summit. When he hits the climax, Haynes’ famous snap-crackle snaps the mesmerized listeners out of their hypnosis, the small room fills with thunderous applause and shouts of cheer as Monk, smiling knowingly, brings the tune home, a perfect ending for side A. 

Upon flipping the record, boom, “In Walked Bud,” another favorite and the most thrilling 11 minutes on Misterioso. In this tribute to Monk’s understudy Bud Powell, based on the chord progression of Irving Berlin's “Blue Skies,” everyone gets to shine. Monk sets up the mood with his 8-bar introduction of the theme, Griffin plays quirky and full of confidence, Abdul-Malik solos, with a groove locked air tight, Haynes demonstrates his impeccable timing and lively touch. And Monk, well, he is trying to out-Monk himself, swinging hard, reveling in his trademark tonal dissonance.

Next up, “Just a Gigolo,” the only song on this album not composed by Monk, which may explain why he keeps it short and sweet, just under three minutes, unaccompanied. Use it to catch your breath, have a sip of wine, get ready for the encore. The closing track lends the album its name, one of Monk’s earliest compositions, dating back to his first Blue Note sessions in 1948. Here, the quartet picks up the pace and turns the tune inside out, over 11 minutes, brevity isn’t a thing yet. In his liner notes, Keepnews muses that Misterioso is more than just the name of a tune, but an “extremely Monk-like song title, evoking by its mild play on words (linking ‘mist’ and ‘mystery’.)” This makes perfect sense of course, except when it does not, which in itself is a very Monk-ish concept. Curtain call, picture Monk and his group exit the bandstand in a cloud of saw dust, headed to the bar for a night cap. 


Of course one cannot talk about Misterioso without giving a tip of the hat to the cover art, which features a reproduction of Giorgio de Chirico’s 1915 painting The Seer. Surely the Italian surrealist didn’t foresee his work would make it on the cover of a jazz album (it was a tribute to French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and you can view the original at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City). But given the time, and location, that birthed Misterioso, it was a perfect choice, appealing to the Five Sport’s mostly bohemian clientele. That said, Misterioso was originally greeted with mixed reviews; with much criticism aimed at Griffin’s performance. For example, in his review for Hi Fi Review magazine, Jazz critic Nat Hentoff found that it was not one of the pianist's best albums, reprimanding it for “too little space for Monk's soloing and somewhat too much” for Griffin, whose saxophone cry and timing were more impressive than his solos.


Well, you know what they say about opinions. While Griffin is neither Coltrane nor Charlie Rouse, his successor in Monk’s band, he may just be the perfect choice for this album. And if Hentoff’s review of Misterioso implies a degree of blandness, one might argue that more than 60 years after it was recorded, it provides not only a rare snapshot of a formative phase in Monk’s career, but it is our time capsule, inviting us back to that hot, humid summer night in August 1958, allowing us to not just poke our heads through the doors of the smoke-filled Five Spot Café, but to spend the night swaying to the contours of some of Monk’s best music, performed in an environment that inspired the pianist to play less introspectively and more vividly than in the traditional studio setting that makes up the vast majority of his records. Though Monk’s performance on Misterioso may not be the best of his long career and may not be entirely unique in its ability to bring you musical euphoria, if you give it a chance, Misterioso will grow on you, slowly but surely, and before you know it, it will undoubtedly be a frequent culprit, if not a favorite on your turntable.


DJ Pari is a Richmond, VA, based writer, editor and jazz vinyl aficionado. He also has a second life in the music business, with DJ performances on five continents and collaborations with legends from James Brown to the Impressions of Curtis Mayfield fame. 

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“The Unique Thelonious Monk”

By Julion St Hill

“The Unique Thelonious Monk”

by Bob Heinrichs 

 

* When he's not moonlighting as a writer and enjoying spinning vinyl records, Bob Heinrichs works as an investment manager in the Philadelphia suburbs.

* Photos provided by Bob and edited by Sierre Monk

With both the honor and herculean task of sharing my experience with this classic album, figuring out where to start was quite the feat. So let's start with the most obvious sparkle on the actual cover, Thelonious Monk's portrait on a stamp with a postage price of 33 1/3 cents, and fittingly so, since most records spin at that speed! A very appropriate and timely dimension indeed, for in Monk, we have a man who, perhaps more than most other musicians, represents so much of what America stands for in terms of being an individual, unique -like the album title-, daring to be different and championing ingenuity. And that goes without saying that Monk was a musical pioneer and tremendous creative force who reeled chords and sounds from a piano unlike the world had ever heard before he arrived on the jazz scene. The title is magnified on the album's back cover with the phrase “very personal treatments of jazz standards.” Whenever I listen to Monk’s albums, I always feel that he was simply unable to create anything that wasn’t “very personal”. Listening to these interpretations of old and familiar standards here is nothing short of magical.

Recorded at this time of year back on March 17th and April 3rd 1956 at Rudy Van Gelder’s Hackensack studio, Monk is joined by Oscar Pettiford (bass) and Art Blakey (drums). While I also enjoy Monk in larger settings, particularly with Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, who seems to intuit Monk’s every move better than most others, smaller trio recordings such as the one on this album nevertheless opens up more ‘space’ for intimacy. The listener can fully experience the “architecture” Monk builds for us to discover alongside him. For example, in "Tea for Two", Monk expands on a very simple melody, which often risks sounding turgid, yet he explores the tune, weaving a web of dissonance that is as surprising as it is revelatory. In the words of the author of the original liner notes, Orrin Keepnews, Monk’s “wry and insidious sense of humor makes itself evident, sharply and sometimes rather devastatingly.” Keepnews makes an incredible point here in that Monk’s playing is always full of a certain sense of humor, as if when he alters a melody or presents a different take on an old standard, we are being invited to share an inside joke with him. I can only imagine that back in the late 1950s, many people weren’t as ready to grasp these types of ‘jokes’. It would have been far easier to label Monk an outsider and a strange one than to take the time and perhaps courage to understand everything he was working to communicate to listeners. Fortunately for us, there were enough forward-thinking folks in the jazz community, who saw past that and embraced Monk for all his quirks and differences!

“Memories of You” is another piece I really enjoyed on this album. Shining as much as in a small trio setting, there is nothing more sensitive and special than hearing an unaccompanied Monk playing a melody, expanding on it as only he can, a wizard all alone with his musical thoughts. And it just wouldn’t be the genuine sorcery of Monk without the occasional dissonant chord thrown in during the melody, or his famous cascades of descending whole-tone scale passages. Needless to say, I've always enjoyed this angular style of playing so much! This piece also reminds me of “Alone In San Francisco”, one of my favorite Monk albums. With a solitary Monk charming those 88 black and white keys, the pieces are tender, delicate and stirring. I could listen to the rapture of his unaccompanied wizardry for hours on end and never grow tired of it. In this regard, I doubt there is any greater sign of a special artist than such an ability to captivate listeners!



“Darn That Dream” closes out the A side with Monk playing with incredible lyricism as he breathes fresh life into a well-worn yet universally beloved melody. In a testament to his abilities, he manages to rearrange this old standard into a piece of music that sounds as if he could have written it himself. Perhaps this is in fact the beauty of Thelonious Monk in that whatever he did was “very personal”; as if he had no choice but to make whatever melody he played sound like his very own! Blakey in turn remains subdued but adds just the right texture while Pettiford takes a short but poignant solo near the end of the tune. Monk returns to restate the melody and ever so delicately play octaves at the very end with such elegance and feel as if it should have always been played this way!

“Just You, Just Me” is a contrasting upbeat and final number on the B side. The trio gets some room to stretch out along the piece's eight minutes. Monk for me is synonymous with a striking use of dissonance and abrupt way of shifting the rhythm through various stops and starts. In this album, however, I love when he latches onto certain rhythms like his clustered chords played over and over in repetitions of syncopated sixteenth notes around 2:35 and again at 4:40 into the tune. Monk’s own voice appears in the recording during these passages as if for emphasis and it sounds as if he were really enjoying himself!

I would be remiss to talk about this record without mentioning the tremendous players Monk has to accompany him here. The full tone of Oscar Pettiford's bass possesses an innate sense that makes him an excellent ensemble player, yet he is also capable of soloing and bridging his own thoughts with some of Monk’s chording in those moments, especially on “Tea For Two”. Drum titan Art Blakey displays remarkably impressive restraint at times on this album, content to play brushes in the background, yet perfectly sensing when to kick it up a few notches.

In short, listening to this diamond of an album was a special treat for me, as Monk breathes fresh life into jazz standards with these ‘very personal treatments.’ This may have well been many people's first time experiencing “The Unique Thelonious Monk”. Riverside had hoped that the concept for this album would help Monk pull in an even larger audience, since standards possessed some familiar elements that could provide a nice starting point. And once listeners allow themselves to open the door and step into Monk's world, those old standards become entirely new destinations that we all can explore and will want to visit again and again!

Be sure to check out some of our other contributing writers by visiting our blog. To read more of Bob Heinrich’s works, visit @bobh812 on Instagram.

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“Melonious Thonk”

By Julion St Hill

“Melonious Thonk”

Each night when Wrong is Right

our darling Thelonious Monk

or

Nellie’s favorite

“Melonious Thonk”

played his Keys like magic

to make Monk’s Melodious

Funk

by Sierre Monk

 

Although we all know and love his philosophies and ideologies, Thelonious Monk’s unique sense of humor should be discussed more often.

 

With an infectious smile and laconic wit, he’d relentlessly joke and stir the pot, especially with family members.

 

According to Monk’s Niece, Evelyn ‘Wee Tee’ Smith, he would tease and troll, “and call you out in front of everyone.”

 

But Nellie was one of the few who would give Monk a taste of his own medicine. She knew exactly how to one-up him. Poke fun at his name.

 

Below is an excerpt from a conversation between Sierre and her Aunt Wee Tee:

Sierre: Was it Melodious Funk or Melodious Thunk?

 

Wee Tee: Melonious Thonk. She was switching the first letters. But writing it, we have to add the H for correct pronunciation purposes.

 

Sierre: So in context, she was basically teasing him/being playful?

 

Wee Tee: Exactly. Or when he was exposing someone for one reason or another, which he did quite often. Aunt Nellie would be embarrassed for the person. And that’s what she’d say.

 

“Oh, Melonious Thonk!” she’d call out, in a sing-songy voice. His teasing would stop and a shy smile would appear. Then big laughter had by all.

And just like that, Nellie’s perfectly timed humor softened Monk’s blunt jibs and most certainly amused those who were lucky enough to witness their special dynamic. With such clever wordplay on a name as compelling as Thelonious Monk, you’d be laughing too.

 

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Crepuscule With Nellie

By Sierre Monk

Crepuscule With Nellie

 


My grandmothers were strong independent women far before Bey was singing about it. Ms. Ev, my paternal grandmother, raised my father alone while also helping to find safe homes and parents for orphans in Kingston, Jamaica. My maternal grandmother, also named Evelyn but went by Skippy, owned her own antique store in manhattan, restoring beautiful pieces and raising my mother on her own.

The woman I learned so much about the world from was not my maternal or paternal grandmothers. She was Skippy’s sister, best friend, and confidant, a world traveler, a holistic healer, and everyone’s go to for company and advice - Nellie Monk was the grandmother I grew up with. She loved me unconditionally and always made me feel wanted and included.

With Ms.Ev in Jamaica, and Skippy having passed in my mother’s teens, I was very blessed to grow up with Nellie in the room next to mine. We spent more time together than I think most kids spend with their grandparents. She was unlike any other person I’ve ever known.

As the baby of the family, hanging out with Nellie made me feel like a big person. It wasn’t just the appeal of hanging with an older wiser individual, rather she spoke to me how she spoke to everyone else. Whether it was my Uncle Toot (her son), the cashier, or her hair dresser we all got the same Nellie.
Nellie was a straight shooter. Everyone got the same version of her, no baby talk, no biting her tongue to soften a blow, just unfiltered honesty. Once you stop treating everyone differently based on age or social standing, you are able to talk about anything and everything.

That’s what Nellie did, and why everyone sought her out. The company she kept was diverse including people from every walk of life. We always had musicians old and new, more than a few aunts cousins and uncles, and neighbors she had met over the years coming in and out of the house. They all just wanted to spend time with her, have some laughs, and seek out a little of her sage unfiltered wisdom.

It was during our backgammon and Yahtzee games or as we split a pack of Reese’s cups that I got the chance to learn about the world from Nellie. We would play and talk for hours. She knew I could listen to her all day given the chance. So she taught me how to listen and deliver a sharp quip. Nellie told me stories about how terribly the canals smelled in Venice (and other anecdotes from abroad), of her adventures with Skippy in their youth and adulthood, and through these and many bits and pieces, about her life.

She spent her childhood working to help support herself and her siblings, traveled the world with her husband, raised two brilliant talented children, and in her seventies and eighties hosted hangs in the room next to mine.

Many a night I wandered in hoping to get my turn at the backgammon board. Invariably my turn would never come but I would stay to feast on all the good gossip. Something a little too juicy would spill and someone would remember me there “Nellie the baby is still in the room”. Just as my heart sank and I remembered I wasn’t one of the big people she would say “don’t worry she’s not even listening” giving me a sly glance.

She would never kick me out, and I was always listening.

 

Written by: Pannonica Val-Hackett

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