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Monkadelphia: All Monk, All the Time

By Published: March 16, 2010

The Monkadelphia Magic

AAJ: One of the reasons I wanted to interview you guys, is that I've heard Monkadelphia perform several times over a few years, and it seems to me that you do consistently well together, and the way you do Monk is extremely tight, brilliant, and well-coordinated, which is no easy accomplishment. I've heard you at the Deerhead, at Chris' Jazz Café, and on CDs, and it's consistently clean and top-notch playing. Now, Monk can be pretty strange.

Monkadelphia / Tom LawtonTL: It's funny, I don't find it strange at all.

AAJ: Tom, you're so eclectic that you don't find anything strange [laughter]. OK, "bleep" what I just said!

TM: Leave it in!

AAJ: But truthfully, more than a few musicians walked out on sessions with Monk, because they couldn't get it. The rhythms and harmonies can be pretty awkward, and some of the changes are "strange"—you have to admit it. I'm often surprised at how coherently you play his music. So my question is: what enables you guys to groove together so well on such complicated, sometimes convoluted music?

TL: Well, first of all, we're playing the same tune, and the same form, so that's the unifying factor. Importantly, I don't think any of us are setting out to replicate Monk's style.

AAJ: Are there standard harmonies for Monk's tunes?

TL: He has devices that he uses a lot. Some are built-in. Like a lot of the harmonic movement between chord changes. He uses a lot of dominant cycles, half-step, whole-step. They can be deceptively simple, but there's something unpredictable about it at the same time. So we have to learn those structures to deal with it. But the reason we play together well—first of all, it's frequency. We do it a lot. Second, we're not out to sound like one of Monk's groups. We might use some "Monk-isms" as an affectionate nod towards him, or because it's in our system just by osmosis, but we're not setting out to replicate anything, in other words, his tunes and his spirit are inspiration enough for us to do our own thing.

JM: I think the five of us just have this natural organic chemistry thing. We're all listening like crazy to each other. Robin Kelley says in his biography of Monk that as soon as Charlie Rouse
Charlie Rouse
Charlie Rouse
1924 - 1988
sax, tenor
got in Monk's band, Monk would always start his solos based on the last thing that Rouse played. That's one of those "Monk-isms"—it's a thing that he would do. And we do too, but we probably would have done it even if Monk hadn't, because it's just a way of gluin' the tune together.

AAJ: Do you tend to learn the tunes by ear, or use charts?

TM: A mixture of the two.

AAJ: Do you woodshed the tunes, or just come in and start playing?

TM: When we started, we had plenty of leeway, because the room was small, and the people in the room were there for other reasons than to hear the music, so we'd just play the stuff in any way we wanted to.

JM: So sometimes, we'd play the same tune two or three times in a row, or make an adjustment and start over.

AAJ: Monk was known to do that as well.

TL: Very little is arranged. There's a few tunes where we might have a concept as a starting point, but even the heads are fairly unarranged.

AAJ: I think Monk himself did a lot of teaching and learning by ear, not so much by charts.

TM: Yeah, they say that when you got in his house, he'd teach you the tunes. They just released an old radio interview with Coltrane, and he spoke about how he'd drop in on Monk, and Monk would teach him a tune, and then Monk would go and take a nap while Trane practiced it.

AAJ: He didn't just hand him a chart, and say "Learn this tune."

TL: Sometimes he did. He was musically quite literate.

TM: I'm glad we did it that way at the beginning. I just want to play with these guys and learn something.

TL: The biggest lesson you can learn from an iconic figure like Monk or Trane, is just try to be yourself—not try to be them. Thus, I don't care whether Monk might not approve of the way we play certain things. Like, he once told a member of his group not to improvise on the chord changes but on the melody. But we'll go in and out of each, depending on what we're in the mood for. Sometimes we do want to play over the changes and ignore the melody. Other times, the melody is the basis. And we're not trying to please Monk.

AAJ: In fact you're following Monk's idea of originality.

TM: We're just doing our thing.

Thelonious MonkMonk's Music

JM: I just like Monk's music because it had more humor in it than any other music I had heard. And Liebman once said that for someone who had a very limited palette at his disposal, he still came up with sixty or more tunes!

AAJ: Why did Liebman think Monk had a limited palette?

JM: Because he used repeated structures and devices over and over again.

TL: But he did have a lot of variety. You could say about a lot of musicians that the scope of their language was limited, but they maximized the use of it.

JM: For me, Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
has this thing too, that built into the tune there are these things you can keep referring to all the way through, and for me of course as a drummer, it's not so much the harmony. I'm just listening for the melodic stuff, and these quirky little rhythmic things that Monk would do. And it's something you can keep referring to throughout the tune.

AAJ: That kind of recurrence is very striking with Monk, almost a trademark.

TL: Right, and you can sometimes do it very literally, at other times not at all, and other times, do it in a veiled manner.

TM: Well, he did it like when you study some heavy cat like Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
1923 - 1990
sax, tenor
or Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
1930 - 1956
, or some of those other guys, you see the same things come up over and over again. And it goes back to what Liebman said about Monk having a limited palette. But here we see it in composition, you get the same stuff over and over again, but it's nothing negative because it's incredible what he does with it.

AAJ: And each time it comes up, it's a little different. But it's interesting that one of the things that holds Monkadelphia together so well are these reference points in the song.

JM: Absolutely.

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