By Devon Wendell
Thelonious Monk has been labeled “The High Priest of Bebop.” Yes, Monk’s contributions to the bebop era were essential in the development of the music. But Monk was so much more than that. No one played piano like him or thought the way he did when composing or covering even the most popular standards from the American songbook. I don’t like to categorize Monk’s music other than it being Monk’s music; a genre unto itself.
More people play Monk’s compositions today that any other composer in the history of jazz. He’s still my favorite musician and composer in the history of American music. Monk never adhered to the ever changing trends in jazz that took place during his lifetime. He always remained true to his own vision. There are no Monk “fusion” albums or Monk playing “free-form” or trying to please a rock n’ roll audience. Monk’s music was and still is modern and he never had to try too hard to sound that way.
One of the most chillingly intimate recordings Monk ever made was Thelonious Monk-Thelonious Himself on the Riverside label, recorded on April 12th and 16th of 1957. This is a solo piano album, with the exception of “Monk’s Mood,” which features John Coltrane and bassist Wilbur Ware from Monk’s infamous Five Spot Band of that same year.
On “April In Paris,” “(I Don’t Stand) A Ghost Of A Chance,” “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and “I Should Care,” you get the impression that you’re witnessing a man whose sole purpose in life was to play music and to do so his own way and that everything else in his life were mere distractions. The voicings on these standards are so special and brilliant. Monk’s harmonies were and still are unique to this day. His use of pedal tones and dissonant chords altered the way jazz musicians heard and played their instruments.
No one else dared to play these compositions this way. At the time of this recording, it was considered sacrileges to alter these harmonies so drastically. Up until 1956, Monk was often dismissed as an eccentric and nothing more by some critics and jazz aficionados. His relationship with Riverside Records (and later with Columbia Records) helped to change that forever. Musicians like Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, Max Roach, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins (who was the first to put Monk on record) Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Art Blakey all knew he was a genius; the rest of the world took a little longer to discover this for themselves.
“Functional” is a stride blues. Monk’s sense of dynamics and spacing makes this piece like no other stride blues you’ve ever heard. Monk was inspired by such stride piano greats as James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith, and you can hear tiny traces of those players here, but Monk’s own personality shines through the brightest.
The highlight of the album is Monk doing take after take of his classic “’Round Midnight,” with false starts, breakdowns, studio banter between Monk and Orrin Keepnews, and incomplete takes, lasting over 20 minutes. Each attempt is harmonically different than the last. What you get to hear is a genius and perfectionist pushing and searching within himself for something magical, and often sounding frustrated. All of the takes are magical but Monk’s standards were as high as his level of creativity. It also had to be right for his fans. As complex as Monk’s compositions are from a technical standpoint, his melodies are extremely accessible. You can whistle or hum his melodies very easily in the shower. That dichotomy is what made Monk so amazing. There finally is a complete take of “’Round Midnight” that is breathtaking.
Monk’s take on Irving Berlin’s “All Alone” is so mournful and sincere. When Monk would cover a song, he would understand it completely, the lyrics, the meaning, everything. Monk never made an insincere move during his career. This is harrowing music. Every note and chord has purpose. Monk was never one to thoughtlessly toss his chops around. Duke Ellington’s influence can be heard in Monk’s more delicate nuances.
The album ends with “Monk’s Mood” with John Coltrane on tenor sax and Wilbur Ware on bass. This is the darkest, most beautiful rendition of “Monk’s Mood” ever recorded. Coltrane plays much more thematically than usual, not straying too far from the melody line as he solos briefly. Ware’s bass lines are thoughtful and precise. Monk’s attack on the piano is delicate and less percussive than on the previous selections. With just a piano, tenor sax, and bass, the effect is far more dramatic than if a drummer had been added. Monk knew this would result in something special and timeless.
Thelonious Monk-Thelonious Himself is a clear glimpse into a very intimate session by one of the greatest artists in the history of the American music. Music doesn’t get any better than this.