~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.