Thelonious Monk – Misterioso

A couple of days ago I posted a piece of music by Eric Dolphy that was inspired by Thelonious Monk , so today I thought I’d post something by Monk himself together with my own appreciation of his music.

Thelonious Monk was a remarkable musician. His self-taught style of piano-playing was unlike that of anyone who came before or after him, including those followers who tried to copy him. He broke many rules, especially in the way he used his fingers – keeping them straight as he played to get a uniquely percussive sound from the instrument, well matched, on the track I’ve posted below, to the vibraphone of Milt Jackson.

Monk was often called “The High Priest of Bop” and regarded as one of the leaders of the post-war bebop revolution in Jazz alongside Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Actually, I don’t think Monk ever really played bebop at all. I’ve always thought the archetypal bop pianist was Bud Powell whose style was totally different to Monk’s. But the “High Priest” tag owed at least something to his eccentric personality: he hardly ever spoke and, aside from his music, he seemed to communicate with the outside world largely through his choice of hat.

Monk’s piano style is hard to describe – his wife Nellie once described it as “Melodious Thunk” – but I’ve always loved his music. To me his solos sound like someone talking directly at you in a strange and wonderful language that you don’t quite understand but which sounds beautiful anyway. His use of syncopation is quite different from the usual bebop musicians and it seems, to me anyway, to echo the rhythms of everyday speech. But, above all, when you hear Monk play the piano, you know immediately who it is. He had many admirers, but nobody could play like him. He was a genius.

In later life his behaviour became disturbingly erratic; he would sometimes stand up in the middle of a performance and go wandering around the stage.  In my opinion his music also deteriorated from the early sixties onwards.  I think it was generally assumed that he had a drugs problem, which he may well have had, but it was eventually realised that he was suffering from a serious mental illness. Although attempts were made to treat this, he stopped playing in the 1970s and lived out the rest of his life as a virtual recluse.

I remember very well the day he died, in February 1982. It was during the Newcastle Jazz Festival, on the day when the great British jazz pianist Stan Tracey was due to give a concert there. As we took our seats in the Newcastle Playhouse for the gig, an announcement was made that Thelonious Monk had died. Stan Tracey, for whom Monk had been a major musical inspiration, responded to the occasion by playing two sets exclusively consisting of tunes by his hero. It was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to and remains strong in my memory to this day.

I think Monk’s best records are from the 40s and 50s, and he was certainly in his prime in 1948 when he recorded this classic performance, for the Blue Note label, of his own composition, Misterioso.

2 Responses to “Thelonious Monk – Misterioso”

  1. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “lived out the rest of his as a recluse”

    There is a “life” missing in there.

  2. Yeah, Monk was certainly a master. A couple of years ago I was blessed with the opportunity to see Kaiji Haino play an all electric set on Monday night, Peter Brotzmann an all acoustic set inside the James Turrell light sculpture on Rice University campus (Houston, TX) on Tuesday night, and then Haino and Brotzmann conducted an all acoustic dogfight inside the Rice Media Center on Wednesday night. And all that for $20! I mention it because, to me, Brotzmann plays sax a lot like the Monk played piano (he’s called The Machine Gunner) and I think he was highly influenced by Monk.

    After moving to Los Angeles I quickly found out that UCLA hosts an excellent music program open to the public as well. Back in May they had an all day jazz fest with featured guest John Zorn and Zorn’s trio Bladerunner. It was the first time Zorn had been to L. A. in 25 years and I was ecstatic! One of my all time favorite jazz productions is The Painkiller/The Executioner with Zorn on sax, Bill Laswell on Bass, and Mitch Harris on percussion. Bladerunner is the same lineup except they replaced Mitch Harris with the former drummer from the Death Metal group Slayer, Ha, Ha, Ha . . . You’ve got to love that! The Painkiller was a two CD set with one CD called Buried Secrets and the other Guts of the Virgin. Recently I wrote a Sonnet alluding to such:

    Prelude to Ecstasy

    The Painkiller blast comes sharp and shrill
    but the Secrets, Buried, will not be harried thus;
    so the Executioner continues to hone his skill
    and the Jazz Slinger to fill his till.

    Tis the twilight of the coming, they say,
    second helpings from the cosmic calculus;
    spewed forth from the Guts of the Virgin,
    in her hand, a well worn abacus.

    Autopoietic Apocalypse, perturbations in the land of sand,
    a killing field of ignorance, a kingdom of bloody lust;
    ashes to ashes, dust to dust, from womb to tomb, the journey is just,
    with mythological relevance, does this proof stand.

    And thus I watch the fires burn:
    the obscurations from my mind – a must!

    Someone else who I think was heavily influenced by The Monk was Kevin Drumm; if you get a chance, I highly recommend his 2001 classic, Sheer Hellish Miasma: I wrote a Sonnet alluding to it as well but I won’t bore you with it.

    With regards,
    Wes Hansen

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