Truth, warmth and swing

Thelonious Monk was an iconoclast, a pianist and composer known for his idiosyncratic approach to life and music, with a reputation among his fellow musicians for being awkward to work with. Miles Davis famously asked him not to comp behind his solo on ‘Bags’ Groove’ in 1954, and some of Monk’s later sidemen complained of how angular his playing could be. On the Giants of Jazz tour in 1971 he barely spoke, and later told bassist Al McKibbon that he’d been unable to communicate or play because McKibbon and Art Blakey, two of his oldest friends and collaborators, were so ugly. He regularly did inexplicable things, and had a habit of getting up from the piano to shuffle-dance around the stage. He became the stereotype of the inscrutable, avant-garde jazz musician.

It’s certainly true that his playing is unlike anyone else’s. He could hit the keys hard, and was drawn to the cracks between them (which results in harsh-sounding dissonances); his rhythms are jerky and lopsided, and he studiously avoids the mellifluous showmanship often expected of jazz pianists. But listening to It’s Monk’s Time, I can’t hear anything forbidding, inaccessible or ‘difficult’. In fact, it’s a generous, playful record, full of warmth and humour, and it swings like a fucking pendulum. Monk was one of the founders of be-bop, but he came out of the Harlem stride tradition, and in every ungainly syncopation you can feel the fiery propulsiveness of that piano-playing style. He was at the height of his powers here, and from time to time you hear a glimpse of a prodigious instrumental facility, but he’s bored of that after a bar at most. His most famous protégé, John Coltrane, was known for his ‘sheets of sound’ approach to improvisation, but he didn’t learn it from Monk.

One of the best and saddest things about this album is Butch Warren’s bass playing. His rock solid swing, warm tone and surging note choices constitute the most prominent voice on both ‘Stuffy Turkey’ and ‘Brake’s Sake’, to which he also contributes a lyrical solo, and his presence is absolutely crucial throughout. This was one of his last recordings, made at the age of 24, before he succumbed to schizophrenia, and he hardly touched a bass for the remainder of his life. He’s not alone in the importance of his contribution, of course. A good player or a good composer is not necessarily a good bandleader, which is a very particular musical skill in jazz. Monk was a master, consistently achieving that rare synergy that propels improvising groups from the entertaining or the beautiful into the sublime and transformative. All of these players found their very particular voices on this session, a creative aim which Monk was known to promote. Despite his later reticence, which can probably be ascribed to his own mental illness, he was known as a great teacher and mentor. John Coltrane said of him: ‘Monk is exactly the opposite of Miles [Davis]: he talks about music all the time, and he wants so much for you to understand that if, by chance, you ask him something, he’ll spend hours if necessary to explain it to you.’

That’s the spirit which animates this record. It’s so much fun that it’s almost impossible, at the distance of fifty-seven years, to hear what might once have been hard to grasp about it, but at the same time Monk’s playing is still unmistakably and uncompromisingly individual. There’s a lesson here if you can hear it, not just for musicians, but for any creative artist, in just how big a pay-off there can be for a sincere and rigorous fidelity to your own inclinations. In Monk’s company these other talented players, Warren, Ben Riley on drums and Charlie Rouse on tenor, men who were looking to make a living and play some good music, become as idiosyncratic as their employer. Although there is very little self-consciously heartfelt balladry or lyricism on the record, the effect is enormously moving. It’ll make you laugh, cry, shout for joy, and very unusually for modern jazz of this era, it’ll make you want to dance.

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