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Sunday, September 23, 2018

Miles Okazaki - Work (The complete compositions of Thelonious Monk) (2018) **** ½

By Alexander Dubovoy

Monk was a polisher. He was known to sit for hours at a time at the piano playing the same piece over and over again. As a result, his improvisations were not just based on “playing the changes” but rather “playing the tune”. He used the full gamut of materials from a composition, beyond simply its harmonic progressions, as fodder for expansion and play. To achieve a type of comfort with a composition that enables this sort of unforced creativity takes an immense amount of patience, discipline, and joy. What is so astonishing about guitarist Miles Okazaki’s new 6-volume compilation of solo Monk pieces is that he has gone through this process 70 times, assimilating each piece fully into his own vocabulary.

Take, for example, Okazaki’s version of one of my favorite Monk pieces, “Pannonica.” Throughout his rendition of the melody, he uses harmonics and muted strings, as well as perfect fourths. It is clear that he has listened to Monk’s excellent version of the song on Brilliant Corners, in which Monk actually plays celeste on the melody rather than piano. Vijay Iyer has likened Monk’s unique approach to upper harmonics to spectral composition. Okazaki beautifully translates these distinctive harmonies, based almost as much on register and articulation as on actual notes, to the guitar.

Playing Monk this way on guitar is a substantial challenge. Even playing some of these pieces on piano can be an exercise in dexterity, but to take them to an instrument that functions so differently requires no small amount of planning. Although Okazaki’s solutions to this problem are novel, they never feel inauthentic. On “Evidence”, for example, he invents an underlying rhythmic figure to highlight Monk’s off-kilter rhythms in the absence of a drummer. Okazaki doesn’t make an arranging decision just for the hell of it (and there are artists whom I would frankly criticize for doing so). Instead, he engages even more deeply with the source material whenever he faces a practical challenge in bringing this music to guitar. The result strikes a difficult balance between the personal and the reverential.

I must confess that I am still in the process of combing through this massive oeuvre and that I likely will still be for years. One of the joys of this compilation is that, between stellar versions of classics like “Crepuscule with Nellie” and “Little Rootie Tootie” lies a wealth of more obscure tunes. There’s even a Christmas song buried in there! I would be remiss if I did not mention fellow guitarist Steve Cardenas and trumpeter Don Sickler’s meticulously notated collection of Monk sheet music, the Thelonious Monk Fake Book. As a pianist myself, I’ve spent many hours combing through this book, so I was overjoyed to find that Okazaki used its scores as his source material. I get a similar sense when listening to Okazaki as when reading the Monk Fake Book of rediscovering details in familiar pieces and finding new songs altogether.

It is tempting to call this compilation a “tribute album”, but in a way I feel to do so would be a misnomer. Of course, it shares a lineage with other albums like Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Monk’s Casino and, perhaps even more directly, Wadada Leo Smith’s Solo: Meditations and Reflections on Monk. Work, however, is more a document of continued, concerted study, one which affords us new visions of Monk’s work and which feels beautifully inconclusive. It is full of brilliant corners.


Dom Minasi said...

This is a massive undertaking. Hats off to Miles. None only has he done it he plays it with style and grace. Bravo!

Dom Minasi said...

correction...Not only

Martin Schray said...

Not only is it interesting to compare Okazaki's album to Monk's Casino and "Reflections and Meditations on Monk" by Wadada Leo Smith but also to Duck Baker's "... plays Monk" (, another great effort, although Baker's approach is very different to Okazaki's. Very good review, Alex.

Armando Moneta said...

Very good review! Another very good cd of solo guitar Monk tunes played by french guitarist Eric Lohrer and called "Evidence" is worth checking out.