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Monk's Music and the Guitar


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As a guitarist whose love for jazz music began in the '70s, I was understandably excited to hear a few months ago, from a most reliable source, that Thelonious Monk really dug guitarist George Benson! Benson was probably the most popular jazz guitarist of the '70s and those who know about the place of the guitar in jazz history understand that he stands among the elite few of all time. Apparently, Monk was attracted to the same thing that a lot of other jazz fans were hearing: a great musician and guitarist.

This exciting information came from my friend and mentor Paul Jeffrey—saxophonist, educator and Monk band member and close associate during the '70s. According to Paul, Monk also adored Charlie Christian (one of the first jazz guitar legends) and expressed a particular fondness for the personal touch in his guitar sound. Of course, my next question was "What about Wes Montgomery?" For this Paul didn't have any anecdotes, but there is a logical assumption here that I'm gonna go with...

There is the misconception by some in jazz that piano and guitar don't get along and have difficulty coexisting. I have never been one to think this because I grew up listening to Wes Montgomery with the Wynton Kelly Trio. Then there's Oscar Peterson with Joe Pass or Herb Ellis; Grant Green and Sonny Clark; Pat Martino and Gil Goldstein; the Nat King Cole Trio with Oscar Moore; Benny Green and Russell Malone; Brad Mehldau and Peter Bernstein and on and on... So, there really doesn't seem to be a shortage of mutual admiration between pianists and guitarists. Recorded examples of the above combos and others show that the two instruments work best together when both players are sensitive and willing to listen to one another, share the stage and respectfully leave space for the other's harmonic ideas either as soloists or accompanists.

Unfortunately, there are just a few recordings of Monk actually playing with a guitarist, most notably with none other than Charlie Christian in bootlegged recordings from jam sessions that happened at Minton's Playhouse in 1941 (also present there were Dizzy Gillespie, Don Byas and Kenny Clarke). Likewise, there have not been many records by guitarists playing the music of Monk as far as I know. (Peter Bernstein's recent release Monk is one.)

Getting the information about Monk's fondness for guitar players, while in the process of recording my latest, Plays for Monk (Origin), was the perfect incentive for me. Just before the trio's first rehearsal for the date, I still had questions about the idea of doing Monk's music: Would it come across as a natural fit for me, my style of jazz guitar and my trio's playing style? I really wasn't interested in focusing on the idiosyncrasies of Monk's playing style as a soloist—his off-kilter rhythmic, melodic and harmonic approach—but rather on the value of his compositions, which are already innately imbued with those 'Monkisms.' I had done the requisite work of weeding through his tunes to see which ones had the right sound for me, for my group and my guitar. (Although, regrettably, I missed his tune "Light Blue," which I didn't realize until too late. For me, that one contains the essence of Monk's harmonic irony, playfulness and mischief and it sounds great on the guitar.) What was most important to me in playing his material, though, was the natural, overall spirit of jazz in everything that Monk did and that's what I wanted to connect with and try to capture.

Technically speaking, there is the inherent issue of transference to a guitar focus when playing music that is associated with a piano voice as the lead. We're used to hearing it played on the instrument whose capabilities were available to Monk for his exploration and exploitation. Some of those 'isms,' like voicings containing dissonances (minor 2nds and clusters), would have to be pared down to meet the physical restrictions of the guitar with its limited number of strings and fret configuration. But with proper investigation, there are certainly ways to achieve the essence of a Monk voicing, even by using two or three notes.

Certain other distinctive characteristics of Monk's musical style are already written into his compositions, like the jagged rhythms in the melody of "Evidence" or "Work"'s sinewy, knuckle-busting lines. These technical challenges simply require study, work and practice. Just as a jazz student needs to learn and memorize every recorded phrase, note for note, that they want to assimilate, I had to do the same with Monk's melodies. There is no room for error and no relying on someone else's transcription. It's potentially dangerous to trust another's ears and/or rhythmic interpretation.

After dealing with these details in order to present an accurate and respectable portrayal of his works, I didn't feel the desire or need to enhance or alter my playing style to suggest anything else that may have occurred on any of Monk's records. And, actually, I took a few liberties with tempos and time and rhythmic feels in order to allow my group a springboard to realize our own exploration and interpretation of this music. This process felt natural, honest and fairly effortless as it was happening in the studio and was done not simply for the sake of doing it differently, but in following my own gut reactions to what his music was telling me to do for myself.

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