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Salient. Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 26, No. 8. Monday, July 1, 1963

The Habit of Thelonious Monk

The Habit of Thelonious Monk

A Welcome and long-overdue addition to the record counters in Wellington over the holidays was three albums featuring one of the outstanding figures of; post-war jazz, pianist Thelonious Monk.

Monk, a bop pioneer and a prolific composer is a magnificent and lonely figure in modern jazz. His approach to the piano is inimitable, unmistakable and, to say the least, disconcerting for anyone brought up on conventional bop and swing piano.

A Monk solo may centre round a very simple pattern of chords, stated, fragmented, analysed, enlarged with brief horn passages in the right hand, and built again into astringent but logical dissonances. His sense of rhythm is very strong and, in fact, not so very far from that of a stride pianist, but the rhythmic pattern is twisted and stretched to fit this spare process of chord analysis. A typical phrase features a short horn line leading into a stabbing dissonance, falling late and very strongly on the off beat. A Monk head such as "Straight No Chaser" is a good example of his technique of composition in this way.

Monk's triple-distilled bop needs some revision of listening habits, but he is far too great a pianist to pigeon-hole as simply far-out bop: a Monk ballad is a masterpiece of romance and allusion—not so very far from Waller or Tatum.

The three records for review offer interesting contrasts, since they feature Monk solo, and Monk with Gerry Mulligan, John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins. Students of jazz will be interested to see how Monk, who was in at the start with Powell. Parker and Gillespie, fits in with these three leaders of cool school, modern extrovert and solid swing.

Thelonious Alone (Riverside RLP 12-312), an album of piano solos, illustrates best Monk's individual but reminiscent treatment of ballads, particularly on Everything Happens to Me and Remember. Everything is handled with a soft humour and a slightly gawky rhythm base which renovates very prettily a charming old standard. Of the six Monk originals on the record, Blue Monk and Bluehawk are the most typical: both show Monk's stride technique, with a sly flash of oom-pah left hand in Bluehawk.

Mulligan, a sometime pianist when he is not leading his group; on baritone, has long expressed an admiration for Monk which is evident in his piano, and this makes Mulligan Meets Monk (Riverside RLP 247) particularly interesting.

The combination sounds awkward and over-polite sometimes, particularly on the ballad Sweet and Lovely. Rhythm-a-ning has some less reverent dissonant digs by Mulligan, returned with interest on Decidedly when Monk delivers a short Monkish lecture of some aspects of chord analysis following a somewhat self-conscious "Bop-sieland" stop-time chorus from Mulligan. There is some fine bass from Wilbur Ware on the hardy Monk perennial. Straight No Chaser.

Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane is a bit of a hotch-potch, featuring as it does three tracks from the Monk-Coltrane quartet that played at New York's Five Spot in 1957. two tracks with a larger unit adding Coleman Hawkins, Ray Copeland and Gigi Gryce, and a track of Monk solo. Hawkins solos only on Off Minor, and after one gets over the initial shock at hearing that slightly raffish tone and hard swing in such boppish company, one realises once again the futility of labelling jazz musicians.

On his tracks with the quartet, Monk swings a lot more freely than on the Mulligan record, and Coltrane sounds confident and extrovert without his early hectoring quality. Indeed, from what I've heard of Coltrane before and after his stint at the Five Spot it sounds as if Monk exerted a strong influence on him. Ruby, My Dear and Trinkle, Tinkle (two characteristically whimsical Monk titles and heads) offer examples of the new Coltrane. The solo track, Epistrophy, is a pastiche of several Monk trademarks, perhaps more rambling than thoughtful.—R.L.