THELONIOUS MONK / “Classic Monk Mixtape”
What fierceness tender touched us whenever Monk made music. He would dance to show the way. Once a new drummer asked: what you want me to do? Monk said “swing.” And the drummer wanting to make sure he got it right asked “what else you want me do to?” Monk said, swing some more.
Simple. Swing. And swing some more! Oh, if only most of us were capable of following those pithy instructions, think how much more delightful our brief time on planet earth would be.
Fifty years is an eyeblink in cosmic terms—assuming we had a big enough eye to see ourselves withn the context of the cosmos. See as in understand that human beings been living for tens of thousands of years. Tens. Of Thousands. Of Years. A long time for us but oh so short in the context of the universe. Monk knew that.
Which is why he wrote music that was both weird and wonderful, all at the same time. Weird to make us look at ourselves anew, reconsider everything we thought we knew, think of things we never knew. Wonderful in what great glories we witnessed once we knew what we were looking at, looking for.
Looking is a lot more complex than simply opening one’s eyes. In order to really see one has to part the veil, not be seduced by mirages, push past the fog, not fear the dark. To see, we need to be both courageous and honest. Like Monk’s music is.
His songs are really songs. Even without words you can sing them. They seem so simple, except they require a sense of rhythm, a sense of understanding the world and also understanding where we are situated within the world; understanding movement, how to propel ourselves forward and when to pull up short so we don’t go too far. We need awareness; in order to play Monk, you have to be aware of where you are and where everybody else is. You’ve got to always know.
This brace of eight compositions and the way Monk sounds them are required grasping if one would consider one’s self hip in the sense of knowing anything significant about the 20th century.
Yes, I know there are people who don’t know Monk. I’m not saying you have to know Monk in order to be a human being. But I am saying that if you are in America, have ears and listen to music, then if you don’t know Monk, something is deeply wrong with your education.
Which, of course, is making a major claim for the importance of his music but the fact that fifty years or so after Monk put these sounds together, musicians are still studying Monk, still struggling to make the changes and get the songs right—that alone should be instructive.
This collection kicks off with a supreme version of “Little Rootie Tootie" from a 1959 (there's that magic year again!) Townhall Concert and features arranger Hal Overton's transcription of a Monk solo written out for the whole band to perform. When the record was first released we all chased it incessantly, marveling at how hard it swung and also astounded by how the band rightly and righteously played Monk’s solo. Aw wow, we marveled. Even now, as I listen, I can’t resist going, aw wow!
As if to prove that he could make lightening strike twice, Monk did a big band reprise that surpassed Town Hall. “I Mean You” and the definitive reading of “Four In One” are from that session. If “Tootie” was difficult, “Four In One” was impossible. How could he dare do both the difficult and the impossible in one life time? Listen, you will hear what I mean.
On all the songs, Monk’s touch is awesome. The man was a moving company. His piano notes sounded rock solid, dense but deft, agile the way he moved, yet solid and heavy as a cement truck unloading.
Except Monk’s music was not the exterior. Monk made the structure, the skeleton, the scaffolding, gave the improvising musician a major platform. He was the legendary maestro who oriented Coltrane toward vistas that were then invisible.
Between composing, and creating a new vocabulary for the technique of playing the piano, and being a visionary guide for generations of musicians, Monk was also a man of the highest moral character. He silently took a drug rap to save his friend Bud Powell. Monk anecdotes (such as the drummer story I used to start this short homage) are both legion and legendary.
Consider this a brief introduction. Just a little signal to let you know you are approaching greatness.
Thelonious Sphere Monk (October 10, 1917, Rocky Mount, North Carolina — February 17, 1982, New Jersey). What a man.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Classic Monk Mixtape Playlist
01 “Little Rootie Tootie” - At Town Hall
02 “Ask Me Now” - The Columbia Years 1962-1968
03 “Crepuscule With Nellie” - At Carnegie Hall Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane
04 “I Mean You” - Big Band and Quartet in Concert
05 “Monk's Mood” - At Carnegie Hall Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane
06 “Ruby, My Dear” - Thelonious Alone in San Francisco
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