Monk at 100

Not that the man is celebrating given that he’s been on the other side now for over 37 years. But if Thelonious Monk was still among the living he’d be celebrating a century on this earth. Even though he only lived to be 64-years old, the man blazed a musical trail of legends. His work was unlike anyone before or after. He played like an alien interpreting the wonky rhythms of ragtime. His songs were like a Lemonhead in that they were tart on first taste, but as you let those tunes melt down there was a hidden sweetness you couldn’t deny. I couldn’t deny it, anyways.

Thelonious Monk was the first jazz artist I ever got into. I bought Monk’s Dream on a whim when I was 21. I think I’d read an interview with Flea where he name dropped the man so I figured if Flea dug him maybe I would too? Turns out Flea has great taste as Monk’s Dream became an obsession of mine. It was an obsession that has lasted to this day. I’ve collected countless Monk albums, with Straight, No Chaser, Underground, Solo Monk, Monk, and Criss Cross as favorites. There’s a double LP I found with Thelonious and John Coltrane that’s pretty stunning, too. And the Clint Eastwood-produced doc Straight, No Chaser is a favorite as well. In that doc filled with tons of wonderful archival footage you see the strange and beautiful in him. He just wasn’t on the same plane as the rest of us. He didn’t just think and write outside of the box, he thought and wrote outside of our universe. He was a true original that will never be duplicated, matched, or remotely replaced.

So on this day, October 11, 2017, let us celebrate Thelonius Sphere Monk. One of the coolest far out cats to ever sit at the ivories.

 

A Life In Albums : Part Two

Thelonious Monk Quartet : Monk’s Dream

I really can’t remember the reason why I bought Monk’s Dream. I was 21 years old and living in an apartment with my girlfriend at the time(summer/fall of 1995 to be exact.) We both had good jobs at the same company but worked different shifts, so while she would go into work at 2pm I’d come home at 4pm. She had her routine in the mornings and early afternoons and I had my routine in the evenings. I think mine had something to do with drinking crappy light beer and occasionally smoking a cheap cigar on our second floor veranda. I’d also do the cleaning(my girlfriend would do the laundry in her down time…or when neither of us had clean underwear left) and in our second floor apartment I had a little corner that contained a 4-track cassette recorder and a couple of rack mount effects processors. I’d do my writing and recording in the evenings as well.

It was a pretty decent life for two kids just three years out of high school and one two years out of a stint at East Tennessee State University on a music scholarship(not me, my girlfriend/now wife.) Musically I was just getting out of a heavy Kinks phase and was still reeling from Adrian Belew’s Here album. I was toying with some 80s King Crimson and just finding my in with Steely Dan. Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, The Black Crowes’ Amorica, and Lenny Kravitz’ Circus were all albums being played pretty heavily by me, as well as Filter’s Short Bus. I’d even found the Squirrel Nut Zippers to be a fun distraction from the modern sludge of alternative rock.

But I wanted something else. Something different.

I’d often toyed with the idea of dipping my ugly toes into the jazz waters. I’d always liked the idea of the jazz musician. That artist that steps out into a smokey club with barely enough room to turn and essentially slicing open an artery and bleeding out onto the stage. Spilling your life force onto the floor while onlookers gasp and helplessly watch. This was how I saw jazz musicians. They were taking far greater chances than rock and pop artists. Blues artists had it the easiest, in my head. 12 bar blues were the road map. One only needed to follow it and occasionally take a side road with some snappy solos and whatnot. Jazz musicians were on another plain, and one I hadn’t been able to find a way onto.

IMG_1905A few years prior when I was still in high school and listening to a lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Mother’s Milk I’d read an article where Flea had talked about how much of an influence Thelonious Monk was on him. At the time I thought Monk was a modern artist, not a long dead jazz great. Apparently that interview had stuck with me as on a weekend trip to Borders with my gal a few years later I found myself looking in the jazz section and came across Monk. After a peruse through his CDs I came across his album Monk’s Dream. Something about the cover grabbed me. His expression, the blue-ish green hues, and the song titles(including a cover of “Just A Gigolo”) convinced my 21 year old brain to buy it. In retrospect maybe it was the universe working its magic, I don’t know, but this would be the album that would push me into the world of jazz. Monk was my shaman of “out there” and “be yourself”.

Monk’s Dream is really the perfect album to be the gateway record into the world of jazz. As strange a cat as he was(and he was pretty strange), his music while being very disconnected and jaunty at times is also very whimsical and even child-like. “Monk’s Dream” is this rhythmically obtuse number that feels like a train car stopping and starting, with in-between those starts and stops a fun, drunken shuffle. As idiosyncratic as Thelonious’ playing can be there seems to be a plan in there; a pattern that if you look closely spells out some significant truth. I liken it to interstellar ragtime. “Body and Soul” is a ballad of sorts that sounds as if it’s being played by two different people, with two different sets of sheet music and in two different moods. It goes from the melancholy to exuberant from moment to moment. I don’t think anybody can pull off Monk except Monk. His style is unmistakably the work of someone who let music pull him from some existential darkness, and while he beat the darkness to a degree it would show up in his compositions. Though, that darkness stays away in “Bright Mississippi”. Here is a song of total exuberance. Monk’s backing band is top notch, with Charlie Rouse’s tenor sax playing standing proudly alongside Monk’s truncated chord stabs. Rouse’s playing, as on the many other albums he played with Monk, is the voice of reason next to Monk’s piano eccentricities. Rouse shushed the demons and kept them at bay. If Monk was orbiting too far out of the musical atmosphere Charlie Rouse was there to reel him back in. Though Rouse himself was a hell of a bop musician, he kept thing pretty cool most of the time. John Ore and Frankie Dunlop rounded out the rhythm section that never took too many spotlight moments but kept the groove grounded which allowed for Monk’s piano parts to be as creative as he wanted them to be.

“Just A Gigolo” was a song that always stood out for me. Growing up with the big band versions and sadly the David Lee Roth cover the song always had an element goofiness to it. With Thelonious the song had an air of melancholy. The idea of the guy that would forever be alone, with a bevy of barely memorable and disposable ladies when thought about for more than a minute does come across as a rather sad affair. What the younger man finds enticing isn’t exactly what the older man does. Monk’s take is a gorgeously drawn out solo number that captures the essence that lingers between being alone and being lonely. The difference between freshly applied cologne and stale perfume that lingers on a rumpled pillowcase. Whether Monk ever got that deep in his own thoughts regarding his interpretation I do not know. All I know is that his interpretation brought those thoughts out of me.

IMG_1907“Five Spot Blues” and “Blue Bolivar Blues” are both swinging numbers. These songs are the musical equivalent of a night out on the town. Unfiltered Lucky Strikes in your coat pocket, a scotch neat, and dames as far as the eyes can see(until that 5th scotch when you’re seeing double.) It’s neon-lit streets and hailing cabs to get to the next club. Monk excelled at this kind of blues/jazz/ragtime hybrid like no other.

“Bye-Ya” is Rouse’s time to shine. It’s a tenor sax-fueled shuffle with some great Dunlop drum fills and the steady heartbeat supplied by John Ore. Monk is inclined to sit back and let things simmer here. He’s the chef adding the special ingredients. “Sweet and Lovely” drunkenly sways through the living room after a night out with the boys. It moves as if every step might be heard by the sleeping family upstairs so each movement is planned and calculated till it reaches the couch and collapses for the night.

Monk’s Dream had a profound effect on me. So much so that it took me nearly 10 years to venture out and buy another jazz album. It felt like this perfect moment in time that I didn’t want to ruin by crowding up the room with more. But because of this record and a random conversation it created I hit up a certain Herbie Hancock and Empyrean Isles and pretty much never looked back.

I’ve since filled my head with lots of Monk(Straight, No Chaser is an absolute monster), but Monk’s Dream will always remain my favorite record of his, and that singular jazz album that cracked my mind open to eventually search for more. This Columbia Records release from 1963 encapsulated everything I thought mattered about jazz music(at least at the time), and it felt classy as hell. It was swingin’, articulate, idiosyncratic, and at times melancholy.

And it was a hell of an album to listen to whilst sipping a Bud Dry and smoking a cheap cigar.

 

Giants on my front porch

DSC03757When I got home from work I saw a couple square packages waiting on the front porch. Oh boy! My recent Discogs purchases arrived! As you may or may not recall, I’ve been on a real jazz kick lately. I’ve been perusing back catalogs of some of my favorite guys; Davis, Coltrane, Monk, Winklehammer. So last week I located a first pressing of Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Dream, one of my favorite Monk records. It was also the first jazz album I ever bought, back in 1995 and on CD. I also found a first pressing of John Coltrane’s Ascension. I think I got a pretty good deal on both, as the vinyl is near mint. Bonus points, kiddos.

As I said, I’ve heard Monk’s Dream many, many times. “Monk’s Dream”, “Body And Soul”, “Blues Five Spot”, and his incredible rendition of “Just A Gigolo” are all on this album and I can listen to them anytime, anywhere. Living room? Yup. Kitchen? You bet. Driving? Of course. The toilet? Why the hell not? It’s an album that evokes a feeling of timelessness in me. I can remember being 21 years old and listening to this album in my apartment with the only light being the glow of my stereo. It’s an album that always brings me some inner peace.

Ascension is another story. I have to admit, I had not heard Ascension before just about 40 minutes ago. I’d always heard of it and had heard it was very close to Coltrane’s heart. Very much in the free jazz form. If you’re at all familiar with Ornette Coleman, then you’d have an idea of what Coltrane was trying to accomplish. Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra,…cats like that were pushing John Coltrane in a totally new musical landscape. Well, this album is the turmoil and tumultuousness of the Civil Rights movement, violence in the south, the threat of Nuclear war, and Coltrane’s inner anguish to find some sort of spiritual peace within himself and the world around him. In other words, Ascension is a loud, brash, tense, and explosive musical love letter to a world Coltrane loved but was afraid might not love him back. First two minutes I was worried I might not be able to get into this record. By the time I was flipping to side two I was already falling love with this album. I’m currently on my second time through and, though I won’t be winning over my family with this one, Coltrane has won me over yet again. As the liner notes state inside the gatefold sleeve, this is not for the casual jazz fan. In an indie rock perspective, this would be like starting your Pavement journey out with Wowee Zowee. Or instead of beginning a relationship with Lou Reed by spinning Transformer you decide to hit Metal Machine Music…or God forbid, Berlin. No, if you’re new to John Coltrane I would suggest Coltrane’s Sound, or My Favorite Things. Those are records that definitely show Coltrane spreading his musical wings while still being firmly grounded in be bop and hard bop. Once you’ve immersed yourself in those two albums, hit up A Love Supreme. Hungry for more? Well my friend, sit down at the table and prepare for the aural and spiritual feast known as Ascension.

Well, that’s all that is happening in the woods surrounded by a cornfield. Now it’s time to figure out what Coltrane album will be next to snag. Or maybe I’ll check out that Winklehammer guy.

Winklehammer on tour with his wife and vibraphonist, Vivian le Vivian, circa 2040.
Winklehammer on tour with his wife and vibraphonist, Vivian le Vivian, circa 2040.