A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

So much Monk, so little time. As if the authentic recorded Thelonious canon – from the earliest 1941 jam sessions at Minton’s to the final 1975 Lincoln Center appearance, studio dates and concert bootlegs alike – wasn’t enough to satisfy with the pure product of his genius, courageous musicians continue to confront the conundrums of his compositions, hoping to unravel the ongoing mysteries secreted in that peculiar but no-longer-neglected room in the attic. The solution, of course, is not in the puzzle but the process, the individual perspective, starting with the tool one uses to pick the lock. Once inside, some try on the clothes in the closet and learn they don’t fit. Others rent the room for a brief time, but bring in their own furniture to be more comfortable. Those who make the deepest discoveries, such as Steve Lacy, Alexander von Schlippenbach, and Misha Mengelberg, find that the room contains only a mirror.

The mysteries persist. So Monk cover albums proliferate. You’ve probably already heard about Wadada Leo Smith’s 2017 trumpet exploration (Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk, Tum), but what about the intriguing, rhythmically-unhinged 2012 trio session by French alto saxophonist Pierrick Pédron (Kubic’s Monk, Act) which I recently stumbled upon via YouTube? Did Göran Strandberg’s 2013 album of arrangements (Monks Mood, pb7) using “Birth of the Cool” instrumentation (including tuba and French horn) slip by unnoticed? How about the acoustic guitar transcriptions by Ansgar Dälken (All Ways Know, Acoustic Music)? The most recent entry goes whole hog – a quartet led by pianist Frank Kimbrough (Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk, Sunnyside) fills six CDs with the largely extant (we can discuss “completeness” another time) Monk song book. Ambitious, admirable, but what’s his angle? Well, in the liner notes, Kimbrough immediately enters a plea of sanity. “I wanted to take the music as seriously as I feel it deserves to be taken. We’re trying to play the forms as written, we’re trying to play voicings of the chords as written, the melodies as written. I didn’t want to play at the music, because I feel a lot of people do that.”

As surprising as it may seem to conform Monk’s knotty harmonies, twisted riffs, and off-kilter rhythms to a by-the-book, neo-classical vision – especially given the spontaneous re-adjustments in the composer’s own performances – rest assured, the music doesn’t sound as staid as the explanation. While the skillful, experienced rhythm section (bassist Rufus Reid, drummer Billy Drummond) follows the tasteful example of Monk’s own supportive units, the ensemble’s wild card is Scott Robinson, who injects unexpected bolts of color by supplementing his tenor saxophone with the occasional bass saxophone, trumpet, or contrabass sarrusophone (a contraption somewhere between a bass saxophone and a bassoon). Moreover, Robinson eschews the “tough” tenor tone of previous Monk collaborators from Coleman Hawkins to Johnny Griffin and Charlie Rouse; he’s more up Lester Young’s alley, circuitously sneaking up on the melodies, winnowing out the excess bluster, slipping in and out of the “written” harmonies, unafraid to squeal when he feels like it. (For starters, notice his a capella intro to “Ask Me Now,” the witty citing of “I’m Beginning to See the Light” in “Light Blue,” and a little Gonsalves-ish twisting on “North of the Sunset.”)

But the pressure’s on Kimbrough. It’s nothing new to him, having faced a similar direct challenge as pianist in the Herbie Nichols Project, and digging into the depths of the instrument’s repertoire on dozens of recordings, as leader and sideman. Still, finding an alternative to Monk’s unprecedented precedent requires not just moxie, but a method. As described above, his point of view is not to re-imagine the tunes; he approaches them from the inside out, accepting them on their own terms. Thus the arrangements are tight, concise, and literal-minded. For his own part, Kimbrough has all the knuckle-busting tangles and abrupt figures under his fingers – when he chooses, he’s capable of Monkish splayed chords and crushed clusters (as on “Blues Five Spot”), and he take rhythmic risks here and there (like chopping up “Monk’s Point,” or chipping away at the insistent “Raise Four”), typically sculpting the shape of his solos from the specific harmonies of each tune – but without going overboard to mimic the brittle touch and quirky demeanor of the originator. Given his varied recording history, Kimbrough has consolidated a number of styles and influences into a personal course of action; in this case he’s not out to change Monk or allow Monk to change him. While Monk’s Dreams may not provide us with fresh insight on the essence of Monk, the challenge itself does reveal pithy facets of the performers at hand.

There are others, of course, who take a different tack. For one, Claudio Cojaniz. An Italian-born pianist/composer in his mid-60s, Cojaniz hasn’t received much attention hereabouts, despite impressive credentials – he’s another accidental YouTube discovery. As a scholar he’s studied medieval Italian and Elizabethan composers, composed film scores and orchestral works, and, to come to the point, has a bewitchingly provocative perspective on the music of Monk (as may be heard on several releases on the Splasc(h) and Caligola labels, primarily Blue Demon on the former and Intermission Riff and Stride, Vol. 1 on the latter). Monk’s not his only interest; sprinkled into his programs are pieces by Mingus, Coltrane, Mengelberg, Braxton, and Beiderbecke – his extended fantasy on “In a Mist” suggests the spirit of Bix’s improvisational play with excursions into modernized harmonies, shifting rhythmic accents, and peripheral episodes. He’s recorded in duos and trios, but left to his own devices the full nature of his curious character emerges.

With Monk, interpretively he’s at the opposite end of the spectrum from Kimbrough, perched somewhere between the conceptual strategies of Giorgio Gaslini (you should revisit Gaslini Plays Monk on Soul Note if you haven’t heard it in a while) and the multivalence of Schlippenbach – he takes liberties with melodies, inserts oblique developmental sections (even in “Crepuscule with Nellie,” which is seldom fiddled with), highlights motifs with italicized details, and ornaments with fusillades and disjunct phrases (“‘Round Midnight” adopts a cubist angularity). Most enticingly, he has a fondness for striding aslant through tunes like “Little Rootie Tootie” and “Shuffle Boil,” hinting at the formative James P. Johnson influence on Monk, and emphasizing the wit implicit in the music. Does he go too far at times, distorting the forms and thus falsifying the intent set down by the maestro? You tell me. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

©2019 Art Lange

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