THELONIOUS MONK plays the music of Duke Ellington
Thelonious Monk (p) Oscar Pettiford (b) Kenny Clarke (drs) Hackensack, New Jersey; July 21 and 27, 1955
1. It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing (4:37) (Mills-Ellington)
2. Sophisticated Lady (4:27) (Ellington)
3. I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good (5:52) (Webster-Ellington)
4. Black and Tan Fantasy (3:23) (Ellington-Milley)
1. Mood Indigo (3:13) (Ellington-Mills-Bigard)
2. I Let A Song Go Out My Heart (5:39) (Nemo-Mills-Ellington)
3. Solitude (3:41) (Delange-Mills-Ellington)
4. Caravan (5:55) (Ellington-Mills-Tizol)
It might seem strange to promise that this album offers a "new" THELONIOUS MONK (considering that this pianist is one of the founding fathers of modern jazz). Nevertheless that is, in a sense exactly what is claimed here.
The many listeners who are quite familiar with Monk's work will most probably find this LP nothings more (or less) than Thelonious in top form, at his most lyrical, relaxed and inventive best - which, of course, promises a great deal right there.
It is, however, our belief that Monk has never reached a sufficiently large audience, that a great many more listeners who might find him most rewarding and very much to their liking have never in the past really listened to him with an open ear and an open mind. They have almost automatically and most inaccurately steered clear of him as being "too difficult" and "too far out" to appeal to them. It's our feeling that the manner in which Thelonious is presented in this album might very possibly be able to surprise and win over this up-to-now self-depriving audience.
It scarcely need be said that this new presentation involves no compromising of Monk's unique artistry. The newness simply derives from something the writer of these notes has always felt most strongly: that a good part of the problem of the jazz artist who is considered excessively "far out" is tied in with the playing of material that is unfamiliar to the 'average' ear. This is not to deny that original tunes are a most important part of jazz creativity. But it can be extremely helpful to know the precise structural and melodic starting point for a musician's improvisations. It can often mean the difference between following the unfolding of a performance with awe and delight or finding yourself just groping, bewildered and almost inevitably somewhat irritated. Communication between performer and audience is, after all, rather essential; and to perhaps more listeners that might care to admit it out loud, the initial identification of knowing the tune can be something more than half the battle.
To give the album a certain unit of mood, and to be sure of suitable material for Monk to worry from, it was suggested that he stick to compositions by Duke Ellington, certainly a man for whose achievements most jazz modernists have more than a little respect. Thelonious readily approved the whole idea. He retired briefly with a small mountain of Ellington sheet music; in due to course he reported himself ready for action; and thus LP was born.
Of course Monk has played and recorded standards in the past. But his primary emphasis has usually been on originals (as well it might, since his own compositions are among the most beautiful, highly-regarded and frequently played of modern jazz instrumentals). Here, for the first time, he sticks entirely to standard ground. He is aided to no small degree by two exceptionally gifted associates. Oscar Pettiford is very probably the finest bass player around today; he has done more than anyone since the pioneering Jimmy Blanton to create and shape the modern bass style. Kenny Clarke was a prominent member of the group that first developed bop; he remains high on anyone's list of top drummers. These three men begin with the decided advantage of knowing each other and each other's music so well that fitting together is almost a matter of instinct. With such support, and with the rich fullness of Ellington's tunes to work from, Thelonious proceeds to display his distinctive and remarkable attributes; a firm, swinging beat; a spare, precise, yet highly lyrical approach; flashes of sardonic humor.
Although Monk remains his usual unfettered musical self, he does not make the mistake of treating Duke's compositions merely as vehicles. They have too much character and strength for that; they serve in each case to suggest a logical direction for Monk to travel. Thus, Black And Tan Fantasy is fittingly treated as a 'funky' blues, Caravan becomes a weird flight of fancy; Solitude - one of the rare instances in modern jazz of an entirely unaccompanied piano solo - is a mood-piece of almost painful poignancy.
The story of the group that gathered at Minton's in Harlem in the very early 40's is by now largely a matter of twice-told tales and personal opinions that don't always jibe with each other. Thus it may never be settled to everyone's satisfaction just who should be given credit for what in the genesis of bop. But it seems clear that Monk was, along with Dizzy and Bird, a key figure from the start. And it is clear that he has never received the degree of credit an acceptance he deserves.
The possible reasons for this state of affairs are widely varied. Teddy Hill, manager at Minton's in those days, has said that "Dizzy (got) all the exploitation . . . Monk seemed like the guy who manufactured the product rather than commercialized it." At the other extreme is the rather than strange dismissal by one jazz critic who wrote, in 1949, that Monk's "place in the jazz scene . . . has been grossly distorted as a result of some high-powered publicity work."
Actually that publicity - belonging largely to the late 740s period when bop as a whole was being 'sold' to the public mostly in terms of eccentricities of clothing, language and behavior - would seem, quite unintentionally, to have done Monk much more harm than good. For while a natural showman like Diz thrived on this sort of thing, in the case of Thelonious it served only to over-emphasize how "difficult" both the man and his music supposedly were. You could easily get into lengthy debate on this subject, but our view is basically that the aloofness of a talented artist who demands acceptance on his own terms or not at all has been read as weirdness, and that a degree of disregard for the rules of conventional behavior (an attitude surely shared with many other artists) has been over-stressed until it seems some uniquely wild amount of irresponsibility. As we know quite concretely, at a recording session he is all business and 100% purposefulness.
But Monk doesn't need (and I imagine, won't particularly car for) this sort of "defense". His fingers and his ideas speak for him; and in this album, I think, they speak most articulately and memorably.
Other outstanding examples of modern music in the Riverside “Contemporary” jazz series include:
Randy Weston (RLPs 2508, 2515)
Sarah Vaughan with john Kirby (RLP 2511)
Six Valves: Don Elliott and Rusty Dedrick with Hyman, Lowe, Safranski, Lammond (RLP 2517)
A Woman in Love: Barbara Lea Sings, with Billy Taylor and Johnny Windhurst (RLP 2518)
Get Happy: Randy Weston (Down Beat’s “New Star” pianist of 1955) (RLP 12-203)
The Mundell Lowe Quartet (RLP 12-204)
Bacon; photographs by Carole Reiff Galletly
Engineer: Rudy Van Gelder
Oscar Pettiford appears through the courtesy of Bethlehem Records
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are released by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS
418 West 49th Street New York 19, New York