Monkadelphia: All Monk, All the Time
AAJ: Just so we don't give a false impression about the group, although you started out on the fringes, as many jazz groups do, you have indeed attracted a significant following and larger, more attentive audiences. When did you start gaining momentum that way?
TM: We developed a steady gig at Chris' Jazz Café, once a month or so. In Philadelphia, word gets around if you're really focusing on something worthwhile. And people started coming out to hear us. Jim is sort of our resident "marketing genius," but we struggle.
AAJ: My impression is that you have a good following now.
TM: When we play at the Philadelphia Art Museum, we get hundreds of people.
TL: And to our surprise, when we played in Somers Point, NJ during the summer months, we had one of the best audiences for Monk ever.
AAJ: I've been told by Tony that you're basically a leaderless group, that no one is the director or star. Now is that a rarity in jazz? I mean you have the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the McCoy Tyner Trio. Most groups seem to be built around a leader. Do you know of any other leaderless groups? And regarding that approach, who calls the signals when you're on the bandstand? And how do you prevent anarchy?
JM: It all seems to happen naturally. Chris Farr tends to announce the tunes. He's sort of the emcee.
AAJ: How do you know who takes the next chorus?
JM: It's just eye contact.
TL: Somebody's done playing, they sort of look up, and somebody else takes over.
JM: However, for our recent recording, we did talk about the order of the solos and so on.
TL: That's just because we didn't want to waste precious studio time. But actually, there are many examples of leaderless groups. For instance, there have been some groups at the Knitting Factory in New York in the last decade that were collectives.
JM: The Art Ensemble of Chicagowho's the leader of that?
TL: And even in leaderless groups, there may be an occasional leader for one or another tune.
JM: When we did our recording, we did it in two four hour sessions that were midnight to 4AM or something, to save money. We rehearsed for them at the University of the Arts, and Chris would come up with the angle for one tune. Or it was Tony's idea to do "Epistrophy" in seven.
TL: On "Green Chimneys" we had the bassist doing the melody.
JM: Chris Farr came up with that little thing at the end of "Eronel." The stuff just kinda grows. Anybody that's got a suggestion, hey, let's do that.
TM: The point is simple. If you put time into something, it evolves. And we've put hours and hours into this group. When you do that, even a mistake becomes a cool thing. I don't know if it was the time period, but when we were coming up, we were doing sessions all the time. I had three or four sessions a week at my house. We're just interested in playing the music. With the young people I teach, I don't see them having sessions like that.
AAJ: That's what led to the really great jazz players and groups. Those informal sessions used to happen all over Philadelphia.
TM: Well that's where the directions for Monkadelphia come from, the frequent sessions we've done.
TL: I think that what makes for a really good group these days is walking the fine line between a pickup blowing session and an organized regular group. If you can have both of those vibes in the same group, it's really great.
AAJ: And you guys seem to have that combination of spontaneity and organization.
TM: The other thing is, playing with guys like these here, and Chris and Micah, for me, all these guys have monster ears. So things can happen in a split second, because everybody hears, oh, it's this! Jim could play a rhythm, and everybody knows where it ends, or Tom could play a chord, and Micah or Chris can do something with it. If you work with guys like these, who are phenomenal musicians, everything's going to evolve the way it should.
AAJ: A propos of that, most historically known societal groups without leaders, with some exceptions like the Quakers, tend to devolve into chaos. So, do you ever have squabbles in the group, or become disorganized? In reality, Monkadelphia has had a rather long tenure for any jazz group. You must be doing something right.
TM: Yeah, we've been together so long, and did so many sessions together, that these days we almost don't have to rehearse. The vibe comes back at the drop of a hat.
AAJ: A lot of jazz groups have a history of conflict and trouble. Egos taking over; guys not showing up; drugs.
TM: No, if anything, these guys are so laid back. I'm probably the guy with most of a problem. Micah's like butterhe just stands back there with his bass. Chris is cool.
AAJ: You don't have a lot of agendas.
TM: No, we don't have any agendas.
TL: We know what this group is about, and it's not about the kinds of things like money, prestige, and so on, that create conflict.
AAJ: To return to the music, what are a couple of favorite Monk recordings for each of you? You, Jim, mentioned Underground.
JM: Yeah, that is a favorite, but I like everything I've bought of his.
TM: I always liked the one he did with Coltrane, for a number of reasons. When it was more recently re-released, it was something none of us had heard, so it was exciting.
JM: I've got a tape of a recording that Robin Kelley mentioned in the Monk biography, with Trane, Roy Haynes on drums. I've got a bootleg cassette of that one. I think it was made by Trane's wife, Naima, and that's pretty incredible.
TL: I always liked Live at the Five Spot Café (Blue Note, 1958). And I know it's kind of a sacrilege, but my favorite ones were those that Johnny Griffin was on, the group with Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware. When I was coming up, I listened to that one practically non-stop for a couple of months because it was one of the few more modern jazz recordings my dad owned, and just the way they played those forms. And something about the way Johnny Griffin meshed with that group.
JM: You're not alone. A number of critics felt that Griffin was one of Monk's best saxophone players, and he had the best at different times: Sonny Rollins, Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Rouse, Phil Woods. Even a couple of early gigs with Charlie Parker. Griffin, of course, came out of Duke Ellington's band, and Monk loved Ellington.
TM: What's the one Monk did in Paris? Did it at a club in Paris, and the tunes are really long?
AAJ: What about Brilliant Corners (Riverside, 1957)?
TL: Yeah, that's a great one too, even though we decided not to do the title tune on our recording. I understand Monk's group did 25 takes of it for their recording. It's a tough tune to get right.
AAJ: Kelley's biography says that that album was saved by Orrin Keepnews, who edited the many takes into what became the released album. Jim, do you like Max Roach's drumming on that one?
JM: Oh, yeah, sure. But you know, in that biography, Kelley says that for one gig he had Scott LaFaro on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. One of the critics said that besides Art Blakey, Elvin was the only drummer who seemed to understand Monk's concepts. And I'm thinkin': "wow, I'd love to hear that one!"
AAJ: When LaFaro gigged with him, Monk wanted him to become his regular bassist.