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Highly Opinionated

Crepuscule with Thelonious

By Published: February 14, 2008
The sun's cracking open the sky at dawn

But the same shit's going down

So back to Africa... Back to the Garden of the Soul

Back to Africa ... From Bunk to Monk back now!

Bird and Dizzy get together for the last time. Monk is there. It is June 1950, Granz puts the whole gig together. All Birdsongs. But Monk slants them ever so slightly and gives them a stamp they never would have had without his harmonics. They now also have a touch of humor. "Bloomdido." "Mohawk." "Relaxin' With Lee." "An Oscar for Treadwell," "Leap Frog" and "My Melancholy Baby." Bird asks to play with Monk. He gets his wish. The tracks are laid down. They are spectacular. Bird groans with pleasure sometimes, as does Russell and Buddy Rich. A piece of history.

Orin Keepnews blows by and leaps in. He is riveted by Monk. He brings him on board and brings in Mulligan to play with Monk. This is magic. The legend of Thelonious Monk begins to spread across the country. Now he records with Trane and Sonny Rollins, Ernie Henry. Miles and Clark Terry. Monk is the Holy Grail. Monk delivers a dissertation on his schematics. It is not about the math and pitch of notes. It is about the sound and tonal quality of the music. He is faithful to the melody, but the harmonic scheme is his own.

Let's do a date with Ellington charts, Monk. Classic Ellington charts. Reverence and passion and one hundred and eighty degree in harmonic twists and turns. and then some when Monk and Pettiford and Blakey get together and drop six standards on tale for Fantasy.

Monk remains faithful to the melody in a traditional way. But his harmonic system is very personal. In fact he abandons the original harmony and substitutes it with his own structure, while continuing to refer back to the melody. His harmonic approach has to do with the ingenious sense of voicing chords in a dramatic dissonant way, casting it in broad relief because of his precise and wonderful sense of rhythm.

Monk is all music: Not part piano and part music. He is all piano AND all music. Monk and Trane build a lasting relationship. His cabaret card restored in 1957 he lands a date at the Five Spot and Coltrane says he is attending the Monk School of Music.

Monk opens Trane's mind at the Five Spot. Trane returns the favor at Carnegie Hall. It is the night of the twenty ninth, nineteen fifty seven. Monk is majestic. There has not been a venue so large in a long time, nor a piano so beautifully in tune. Monk soars into the stratosphere! Trane, now almost fully grown follows suit. In brooding conversation, they discuss Monk's Dream, swinging gently as Monk travels across the keyboard like he is stroking the body of his beloved. They don't stop here. Monk is warm now, and launches into "Evidence," then "Crepuscule" with Nellie that maddeningly up and down harmonic wonder that seems to search but never find its harmonic centre. and just when you think that it does, Monk changes the chord. The group survives. and launch into "Nutty" and "Epistrophy." Later that night, they begin with "Bye-Ya," Monk leads then into "Sweet and Lovely," one of a handful of standards that Monk pulls out from his repertoire. Then "Blue Monk" and "Epistrophy" to close the set. And the historic concert.

It is always edifying to be with Trane and trade riffs and solos. Just as it is also good: all the times he is with Rollins and Johnny Griffin; Pettiford and Clarke. They want to make him an institution suddenly. Everyone is taking notice. One of them is Hall Overton. He scores Monks music for orchestra and Orin Keepnews makes a date at the Town Hall. Hmmm. Interesting new textures emerge. A new twist to his monastic outness and the music of course. This is serious. Why should it be? Monk appears out of it although the music is a big success. Overton says: "He has a very selective approach to sound. In a sense, he abstracts from the fuller type of jazz harmony. It isn't that he doesn't know the full harmony—he's played it for me but he does know those particular sounds he wants and so his harmony is lean. Incidentally there is one thing he does that may or may not be conscious, but that he does along with the spaces he leaves in his chords. He plays with flat fingers; his fingers are splayed out, not curved into the keyboard and as a result, he can resist the temptation to play full chords.

"As a whole, Monk is an excellent example of a non-conformist in a field that's very cliquish and conformist despite the legend that every jazzman is an individualist. Monk always stuck to his own way, and it's finally paying off."

Monk is forty now. Technique: "Flat fingers." Who the hell cares, I don't! The music is important. Listen to what it is trying to say. Oh well! Time to move on, I guess. He moves from bed to piano and back to bed. Or he might go over to Nica's. Nothing much to say. So listen to the music.

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