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TS Monk: His Father's Voice Monk Quartet with Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, Part 1

By Published: September 26, 2005

AAJ: When I said "joyous" before: This new album gave me a picture of your father sitting at the piano, looking around and smiling, "Not only have I made it to Carnegie Hall—I'm with a cat who gets it!"

TSM: Who ABSOLUTELY gets it! I did an interview yesterday and the reporter was going to interview Sonny Rollins after me, so they were asking me about Thelonious and Sonny Rollins and Thelonious and Coltrane. I was saying that I think what made the relationship with Coltrane truly unique is that when you talk about the tenor saxophone, there are really two schools today for tenor saxophone: Either a cat plays out of the Coltrane school or he plays out of the Sonny Rollins school. And they're both valid and equal, I believe.

The difference, though, is that, in terms of Thelonious' music, when I listen to Sonny Rollins with Thelonious, which was another match made in heaven, what I heard from Sonny Rollins' saxophone itself was sort of a history of the tenor saxophone. Clearly, when I listen to John Coltrane, this was a NEW sound, a different kind of sound for the tenor saxophone. I think that this new, different kind of sound was more suited to where Thelonious' music was actually going, as opposed to what it was, where it had been. Because Thelonious' music had always been "leaning forward."

So when I listen to Coltrane...take a composition like "Epistrophy." Clearly this is leaning toward and implying the whole modal thing that was to come in the music that John Coltrane led the charge with. In order to do that, with this new sound for the tenor saxophone, he needed some new music. That's what Thelonious brought to the table for John Coltrane: The music that was the doorway to where jazz and the tenor saxophone were going to go. It was sort of a different mission from the mission with Sonny Rollins. Sonny Rollins, to me, and I'm not just talking about Sonny, I'm talking about Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon, I'm talking about all those cats who played with Thelonious up until John Coltrane, was, to me, it was what the music WAS.

This is what it IS. This is what Monk IS, with Coltrane: A new kind of tone, and a new kind of way of hearing improvisational lines that was far less bebop than his peers and predecessors. Thelonious, although he had been monikered "The High Priest of Bebop," was never really a bebopper. He was one of the architects of bebop, but so was Dizzy and so was Bird. Now Bird died very very young so we don't know where Bird would have gone, but Bird had changed the way we think of improvisational melody, the way we think of melody in general for Western music in the 20th century. We don't know where he was going to take that. But clearly Dizzy gave us the entire Afro-Cuban jazz, Latin genre. And Thelonious, although he was like the "High Priest of Bebop" and Dizzy was like the archibishop and Bird was like the king, Thelonious went on to become the Father of MODERN Jazz. And that's because of the MUSIC that he had. His MUSIC released everybody. He was a very iconoclastic guy, man. He changed the way that people looked at composition.

AAJ: He is also one of those rare artists where you cannot separate Monk the pianist from Monk the composer.

TSM: No, you can't. You absolutely can not. But there are some internals...if you don't mind me just talking...(laughs)...there are some internals to this recording that I would really like to tell you about, that I see.

L-R: John Coltrane, Shadow Wilson, Thelonious Monk, Ahmed Abdul-Malik At The Five Spot Cafe, New York City, 1957

AAJ: Well, then...would you like to discuss the internals that you see on this new album?

TSM: I would start with: After John Coltrane, history tells us that Thelonious chose the quartet as his ensemble of preference. He had done it a little bit but he had been doing trios and octets and all kinds of things. But after John Coltrane, it was quartet from then on. So there was something about that relationship with John Coltrane that made him realize that this particular ensemble configuration was the perfect vehicle for Thelonious. And John Coltrane, after Thelonious Monk, chose the quartet as his preferred ensemble configuration, to send his message. So that was a powerful message right there, particularly when you consider that Coltrane came out of a heavy duty quintet, sextet kind of thing.

After John Coltrane, the next cat Thelonious really settled on was Charlie Rouse. Charlie Rouse was not out of that traditional tenor saxophone mold. What they played, the sound that Charlie Rouse got, the tone of Charlie Rouse's tenor saxophone, is like the tone of John Coltrane. So Thelonious obviously fell in love with that tone and felt that that particular tone conveyed his melodies better than any other, because he laid with that for the rest of his career.

Now, John Coltrane gets a quartet. This is the guy that was steeped in the likes of Wynton Kelly and Red Garland, but he doesn't go out and get one of the new young proponents—a Walter Davis Jr., somebody like that, a proponent of that sound—he goes out and gets McCoy Tyner and Tommy Flanagan, who don't play the standard rhythms, that standard sort of bebop piano that we got from Red Garland and those guys. So obviously what John Coltrane heard in the Monk quartet affected him profoundly.

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