Four In One: Monk From Four Different Angles
While Bernstein borrowing Monk's music to create something new is an overt use of this ideal, trumpeter Randy Brecker has created a tribute of sorts to both Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus in the same tune by borrowing their very essence. Brecker's return to acoustic jazz in the mid-to-late 1980s on In The Idiom (Denon, 1987) yielded one of his most enduring tunes. I had the pleasure of hearing him perform "There's A Mingus A Monk Us" at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola several years back and the way he weaved in subtle tributes to these two giants can't help but make you smile.
Brecker played this song with his group when he appeared on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz radio program, with pianist Bill Charlap as guest host, and it is available to hear on the National Public Radio (NPR) website. Brecker's connection to Mingus is far more direct than his connection to Monk, however, playing with the bass legend towards the end of his life. The trumpeter has also been part of many Mingus projects over the years. Even the key signature of his tuneD-flatis a nod toward the bassist because he enjoyed writing in this key.
Borrowing these ideals helped Brecker create a piece of music that sounds fresh but is tied into what came before him. The Monk-isms, including some angular lines and punchy rhythmic statements, are essential in helping to make this music moving and powerful. While this is only one piece in Brecker's impressive collection of songs, it certainly shows his fondness for borrowing ideas and compositional attributes from other musicians.
When thinking about Monk and the word blue, is it any wonder that "Blue Monk" is the first song that comes to mind? While sifting through recordings and score samples on the web, looking for music to use with my middle school jazz band, I came upon an arrangement of "Blue Monk." Monk-for-middle-school? Absolutely. It sounds hip, appears to be well put together, and begs the question: what would Thelonious Monk think about his music being interpreted by kids in school jazz bands in 2010?
On one hand, he would likely love it, and his role in educating musicians to learn his songs would be expanded to the furthest reaches. On the other, there might be some bitterness. This man and musical genius had great difficulty getting his own music recorded at first, and struggled to get jobs during his own prime. I think that the irony of his fame increasing ten-fold after his death wouldn't be lost on Monk. Regardless of what he might have thought, I am thankful that his music is here for students to hear and learn. Kelley's book notes that "Blue Monk" was written in the studio in 1954, when Bob Weinstock "complained that Monk never played the blues." Kelley mentions that Monk later cited this as one of his favorite pieces and, thankfully, many recordings of Monk playing this song exist today. Next year, I hope to include this one in a program, along with "Blue and Sentimental" and "Blue Bossa," that brings The Blues, in color and sound, into focus for my middle school jazz band.
Stay tuned for more Old, New, Borrowed and Blue.