Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Thelonious Monk

With the arrival Thelonious Sphere Monk, modern music--let alone modern culture--simply hasn’t been the same. Recognized as one of the most inventive pianists of any musical genre, Monk achieved a startlingly original sound that even his most devoted followers have been unable to successfully imitate. His musical vision was both ahead of its time and deeply rooted in tradition, spanning the entire history of the music from the “stride” masters of James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith to the tonal freedom and kinetics of the “avant garde.” And he shares with Edward “Duke” Ellington the distinction of being one of the century’s greatest American composers.

As much as Monk helped usher in the bebop revolution, he also charted a new course for modern music few were willing to follow. Whereas most pianists of the bebop era played sparse chords in the left hand and emphasized fast, even eighth and sixteenth notes in the right hand, Monk combined an active right hand with an equally active left hand, fusing stride and angular rhythms that utilized the entire keyboard. And in an era when fast, dense, virtuosic solos were the order of the day, Monk was famous for his use of space and silence. In addition to his unique phrasing and economy of notes, Monk would “lay out” pretty regularly, enabling his sidemen to experiment free of the piano’s fixed pitches. As a composer, Monk was less interested in writing new melodic lines over popular chord progressions than in creating a whole new architecture for his music, one in which harmony and rhythm melded seamlessly with the melody. “Everything I play is different,” Monk once explained, “different melody, different harmony, different structure. Each piece is different from the other. . . . [W]hen the song tells a story, when it gets a certain sound, then it’s through . . . completed.”

Monk's Dream (1963)

Underground (1967)

With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (2005)


  1. Solid. My Monk collection needed some backing up. I've always enjoyed the Trane/Monk combo, but hadn't heard the live disc! I like Dylan's anecdotal memories of seeing Monk down in the West Village when he lived there back in the day. Can totally picture Monk scrawling the notes for some composition at a smoky cafe downtown. Good stuff, thanks!

  2. Gotta love Monk. Total renegade, such a unique style. I love the albums he made for Columbia in the 60s. He had a great little band that was totally in tune with what he was doing. And yeah, there are so many great anecdotes. Like when he barely uttered a word during his entire tour with Art Blakey, only to later admit it was because he found Blakey to be so ugly. And the fact that he would get up and do this weird little dance when particularly excited during a performance. Here’s a great video I found on youtube: