Click here to [close]

Monday, May 7, 2018

Approaching Monk

By Paul Acquaro

A few weeks ago, the blog explored a new release from Anthony Braxton chronicling his work on Charlie Parker's catalog. Another titan from the Be-bop era whose music is always up for reinterpretation is pianist Thelonious Monk. Today I look at two very different approaches to the forward thinking compositions of Monk: solo guitar and organ trio. Both recordings look at the music of Monk and come up with their own rewarding results.

Duck Baker - Plays Monk (Triple Point, 2018) *****

I have always thought Monk's tunes offered something special for guitarists. His compositions stripped back the frills and speed of BeBop and went for the jugular. His melodies may seem oddly syncopated and chord voicing incomplete, but isn't that just perfect for the guitar? One has limits of the number of notes to play, having typically only six strings and less fingers to try to express it all, so one must make deliberate choices of what is heard and what is implied. Duck Baker, a finger style acoustic guitarist, certainly knows how to make these choices.

This beautiful LP from Triple Point records - a label which does not release a lot of music but the releases are  high quality and contain carefully curated  liner notes. This one features notes from both Baker, who explains his long term relationship with Monk's music, as well words from the late trombonist, and early Monk interpreter, Roswell Rudd. They both give a great deal of context to Monk's music, especially in how the elements of American music like blues, gospel, ragtime, and swing all play out in Monk's music and these solo interpretations.

Baker starts with one of my favorite tunes 'Blue Monk'. However if you're familiar with the melody you may be wondering where the beautiful cadenza he begins with is in the original. A mix of classical and jazz, the first minute and a half suggests, but doesn't emulate the melody, and when the theme kicks in, it's a brief once through before Baker is extrapolating and improvising. Monk was fond of saying to his band mates to just follow the melody, and this is the best guide to relaxing into and enjoying these interpretations: follow the melody, but don't expect it!

'In Walked Bud' is actually pretty true to the original - for a bit - then elements of gospel enter, and counter motions and melodies keep the song from settling into any sort of predictability. The set is rounded out by a hopeful introduction before delving into the already perfect melody of 'Straight, No Chaser', with a delightfully confounding start.

This album is a true gem - for Monk enthusiasts, for guitarists, and kids of all ages.

(Limited edition LP)

Gregory Lewis (featuring Marc Ribot) - Organ Monk Blue (s/r, 2018) ****

Gregory Lewis' Breathe Suite, which was a set of musical reflections on the tragedies of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, as well as other gross perversions of justice and racism, came out a couple years ago, and it is very much worth a listen to its unfolding compositions. However the artist known as Organ Monk returns on Organ Monk Blue with his Monk bonafides front and center, cast as a gritty organ trio with drummer Jeremy Bean Clemons and guitarist Marc Ribot.

The trio starts the all Monk repertoire with 'Green Chimneys' and the fact that this is going to be a funky happening is clear - kicking off with a deep pocketed groove, the band lurches into the familiar melody. Halfway through the stops are pulled and Lewis is in full on Hammond bliss - until he suddenly pulls back and it's Ribot's turn with a tasty set of jazz inflected licks. It's great to hear to Ribot in this setting, though perhaps he keeps it a little too germane - at first.

The follow up 'Blue Sphere' takes a different approach - still dark and bluesy, the melody moves along in a sinewy sidle and Ribot takes it further out in his solo. On 'Raise Four', the melody is given a hair-raising circular treatment with Ribot tossing some sonic firecrackers into the whirl. 'Misterioso' is a lovely ballad that boils like a lava bed, and 'Blue Hawk' is a gut wrenching blues that you kind of forget Monk altogether while greasy flames flare up all around. The guitar tone switches from dry and brittle to crunch and hot at just the right moment - and doesn't let up until the group snaps back into place. It's not the version you'll hear on the original Alone in San Francisco.

Lewis' deep reverence for Monk and the inspiration he draws from the pianis'ts compositions is on full display. Organ Monk Blue isn't free-jazz or avant-garde rather, it's rootsy, honest, and an hour of your musical life that you'll want to repeat again and again.

Not quite a Monk tunr, but here's the trio in action...


Also, I should also mention trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith's brilliant solo interpretations of Monk's music on Solo: Reflections And Meditations On Monk from  TUM from last year. He too offers a masterclass in interpretation.


Captain Hate said...

Duck Baker released the excellent Spinning Song: Duck Baker Plays the Music of Herbie Nichols on Avant in 1996. Frankly I'm surprised he didn't do a Monk tribute before this.