2 New Albums Confirm Thelonious Monk's Genius As A Composer

Jan 16, 2019
Originally published on January 17, 2019 10:17 am
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Two new interpretations of the complete works of Thelonious Monk have been released, arranged for jazz quartet and for solo guitar. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says both catch Monk's playful spirit.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK KIMBROUGH PERFORMANCE OF THELONIUS MONK'S "TWO TIMER")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Pianist Frank Kimbrough on a Monk tune Monk never recorded - "Two Timer." It's from the six-CD set "Monk's Dreams: The Complete Compositions Of Thelonius Sphere Monk." Something like it had been done before - very well, too - when German pianist Alex von Schlippenbach and company recorded the creatively varied "Monk's Casino" in 2003. But they missed a few tunes.

The new "Monk's Dreams" was recorded quickly in seven sessions. Sometimes the quartet recalls Monk's own informal repertory project, rerecording his older classics in the 1960s. Saxophonist Scott Robinson has his own sound but catches the clear way Monk's tenor, Charlie Rouse, enunciated those melodies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK KIMBROUGH PERFORMANCE OF THELONIUS MONK'S "HORNIN' IN")

WHITEHEAD: Monk's compositions sounded like his piano - the same playful hesitations, clanky chords and foregrounding of melody. To do justice to them, you might meet Monk halfway, the way Kimbrough does on piano. Rufus Reid on bass and drummer Billy Drummond swing the foundation the way Monk liked it. For extra gravitas, Scott Robinson sometimes mans the mighty contrabass sarrusophone or bass saxophone.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK KIMBROUGH PERFORMANCE OF THELONIUS MONK'S "BRILLIANT CORNERS")

WHITEHEAD: This quartet has a good feel for the material. Their Monk marathon never feels like a slog. Scott Robinson also picks up trumpet a few times. And every so often, the band take respectful liberties with a written line. This is "Jackie-ing."

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK KIMBROUGH PERFORMANCE OF THELONIUS MONK'S "JACKIE-ING")

WHITEHEAD: They tweak the melody there by playing the pitches as written with different timing. That's one tactic guitarist Miles Okazaki uses on his heroic solo take on all 70 Monk tunes, the downloadable album "Work." One way or another, every piece addresses the same problem - how to adapt music designed for band or piano to solo guitar, an instrument with a much smaller range, where it's harder to keep independent lines going - harder but not impossible.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES OKAZAKI PERFORMANCE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "EPISTROPHY")

WHITEHEAD: Thelonious Monk's theme "Epistrophy" - Miles Okazaki recorded "Work" over many months, giving each tune a fresh approach. Some of Monk's weird chords require retuning the guitar. But he also looks to the composer's intentions. Monk's "Shuffle Boil" was inspired by the great Harlem tap dancers, so Okazaki taps out some traditional time steps on the strings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES OKAZAKI PERFORMANCE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "SHUFFLE BOIL")

WHITEHEAD: Miles Okazaki gets into the spirit of the material. Monk once recorded the ballad "Pannonica" using a keyboard that plays little bells. In tribute, Okazaki plays as much of the melody as he can in chiming harmonics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES OKAZAKI PERFORMANCE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "PANNONICA")

WHITEHEAD: The ballads are among the highlights of Miles Okazaki's Monk epic. There are some fast numbers where the sound gets a little thin, where one frantic line seems not quite enough. But Okazaki, like Frank Kimbrough's foursome, rises to this formidable challenge. One reason to tackle all the Monk tunes is to play material you'd never engage otherwise. More than anything, these fine studies confirm Monk's genius as composer. He wrote dozens of instantly catchy works that sound like no one else could have dreamed them up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES OKAZAKI PERFORMANCE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "CREPUSCULE WITH NELLIE")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed two collections of the complete compositions of Thelonious Monk arranged for jazz quartet by Frank Kimbrough and for guitar by Miles Okazaki. On tomorrow's show - in the late 1970s, Americans were coping with inflation and unemployment. Lethal arguments were breaking out in gas lines, and 52 hostages were held in Iran. Journalist Jon Ward will tell us about the chaos that led Senator Ted Kennedy to challenge President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination and the long-lasting damage it did to the party. His new book is "Camelot's End" - hope you can join us. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.