Monk's Music and the Guitar

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As a guitarist whose love for jazz music began in the '70s, I was understandably excited to hear a few months ago, from a most reliable source, that Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
really dug guitarist George Benson
George Benson
George Benson
b.1943
guitar
! Benson was probably the most popular jazz guitarist of the '70s and those who know about the place of the guitar in jazz history understand that he stands among the elite few of all time. Apparently, Monk was attracted to the same thing that a lot of other jazz fans were hearing: a great musician and guitarist.





This exciting information came from my friend and mentor Paul Jeffrey—saxophonist, educator and Monk band member and close associate during the '70s. According to Paul, Monk also adored Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
1916 - 1942
guitar, electric
(one of the first jazz guitar legends) and expressed a particular fondness for the personal touch in his guitar sound. Of course, my next question was "What about Wes Montgomery?" For this Paul didn't have any anecdotes, but there is a logical assumption here that I'm gonna go with...

There is the misconception by some in jazz that piano and guitar don't get along and have difficulty coexisting. I have never been one to think this because I grew up listening to Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
1925 - 1968
guitar
with the Wynton Kelly
Wynton Kelly
Wynton Kelly
1931 - 1971
piano
Trio. Then there's Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
1925 - 2007
piano
with Joe Pass
Joe Pass
Joe Pass
1929 - 1994
guitar
or Herb Ellis
Herb Ellis
Herb Ellis
1921 - 2010
guitar
; Grant Green
Grant Green
Grant Green
1935 - 1979
guitar
and Sonny Clark
Sonny Clark
Sonny Clark
1931 - 1963
piano
; Pat Martino
Pat Martino
Pat Martino
b.1944
guitar
and Gil Goldstein; the Nat "King" Cole
Nat
Nat "King" Cole
1919 - 1965
piano
Trio with Oscar Moore
Oscar Moore
Oscar Moore
1912 - 1981
guitar
; Benny Green
Benny Green
Benny Green
b.1963
piano
and Russell Malone
Russell Malone
Russell Malone
b.1963
guitar, electric
; Brad Mehldau
Brad Mehldau
Brad Mehldau
b.1970
piano
and Peter Bernstein
Peter Bernstein
Peter Bernstein
b.1967
guitar
and on and on... So, there really doesn't seem to be a shortage of mutual admiration between pianists and guitarists. Recorded examples of the above combos and others show that the two instruments work best together when both players are sensitive and willing to listen to one another, share the stage and respectfully leave space for the other's harmonic ideas either as soloists or accompanists.

Unfortunately, there are just a few recordings of Monk actually playing with a guitarist, most notably with none other than Charlie Christian in bootlegged recordings from jam sessions that happened at Minton's Playhouse in 1941 (also present there were Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
, Don Byas
Don Byas
Don Byas
1912 - 1972
sax, tenor
and Kenny Clarke
Kenny Clarke
Kenny Clarke
1914 - 1985
drums
). Likewise, there have not been many records by guitarists playing the music of Monk as far as I know. (Peter Bernstein's recent release Monk is one.)

Getting the information about Monk's fondness for guitar players, while in the process of recording my latest, Plays for Monk (Origin), was the perfect incentive for me. Just before the trio's first rehearsal for the date, I still had questions about the idea of doing Monk's music: Would it come across as a natural fit for me, my style of jazz guitar and my trio's playing style? I really wasn't interested in focusing on the idiosyncrasies of Monk's playing style as a soloist—his off-kilter rhythmic, melodic and harmonic approach—but rather on the value of his compositions, which are already innately imbued with those 'Monkisms.' I had done the requisite work of weeding through his tunes to see which ones had the right sound for me, for my group and my guitar. (Although, regrettably, I missed his tune "Light Blue," which I didn't realize until too late. For me, that one contains the essence of Monk's harmonic irony, playfulness and mischief and it sounds great on the guitar.) What was most important to me in playing his material, though, was the natural, overall spirit of jazz in everything that Monk did and that's what I wanted to connect with and try to capture.

Technically speaking, there is the inherent issue of transference to a guitar focus when playing music that is associated with a piano voice as the lead. We're used to hearing it played on the instrument whose capabilities were available to Monk for his exploration and exploitation. Some of those 'isms,' like voicings containing dissonances (minor 2nds and clusters), would have to be pared down to meet the physical restrictions of the guitar with its limited number of strings and fret configuration. But with proper investigation, there are certainly ways to achieve the essence of a Monk voicing, even by using two or three notes.

Certain other distinctive characteristics of Monk's musical style are already written into his compositions, like the jagged rhythms in the melody of "Evidence" or "Work"'s sinewy, knuckle-busting lines. These technical challenges simply require study, work and practice. Just as a jazz student needs to learn and memorize every recorded phrase, note for note, that they want to assimilate, I had to do the same with Monk's melodies. There is no room for error and no relying on someone else's transcription. It's potentially dangerous to trust another's ears and/or rhythmic interpretation.

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