Archive for Thelonious Monk

On Off Minor

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on May 19, 2018 by telescoper

One of the contributors to the `Out Thinkers’ event I went to a couple of weeks ago, Emer Maguire, talked about science and music. During the course of her presentation she mentioned one of the most common sets of chord changes in pop music, the I-V-vi-IV progression. In the key of C major, the chords of this progression would be C, G, Am and F. You will for example find this progression comes up often in the songs of Ed Sheeran (whoever that is).

These four chords include those based on the tonic (I), the dominant (V) and the sub-dominant (IV) – i.e. the three chords of the basic blues progression – as well as the relative minor (vi). The relative minor for a major key is a key with exactly the same notes (i.e. the same sharps and flats) in it, but with a different tonic. With these four chords (shuffled in various ways) you can reproduce the harmonies of a very large fraction of the modern pop repertoire. It’s a comfortable and pleasant harmonic progression, but to my ears it sounds a bit bland and uninteresting.

These thoughts came into my head the other night when I was listening to an album of music by Thelonious Monk. One of my `hobbies’ is to try to figure out what’s going on underneath the music that I listen to, especially jazz. I can’t really play the piano, but I have an electronic keyboard which I play around on while trying to figure out what chord progressions are being used. I usually make a lot of terrible mistakes fumbling around in this way, so my neighbours and I are grateful that I use headphones rather than playing out loud!

I haven’t done a detailed statistical study, but I would guess that the most common chord progression in jazz might well be ii-V-I, a sequence that resolves onto the tonic through a cadence of fifths. I think one of the things some people dislike about modern jazz is that many of the chord progressions eschew this resolution which can make the music rather unsettling or, to put it another way, interesting.

Here’s a great example of a Thelonious Monk composition that throws away the rule book and as a result creates a unique atmosphere; it’s called Off Minor and it’s one of my absolute favourite Monk tunes, recorded for Blue Note in 1947:

The composition follows the standard 32 bar format of AABA; the A section ends with a strange D sharp chord extended with a flattened 9th which clashes with a B in the piano melody. This ending is quite a shock given the more conventional changes that precede it.

But it’s the B section (the bridge) where it gets really fascinating. The first bar starts on D-flat, moves up to D, and then goes into a series of unresolved ii-V changes beginning in B-flat. That’s not particularly weird in itself, but these changes don’t take place in the conventional way (one each bar): the first does, but the second is over two bars; and the third over four bars. Moreover, after all these changes the bridge ends on an unresolved D chord. It’s the fact that each set of eight bars ends in mid-air that provides this piece with its compelling  sense of forward motion.

There’s much more to it than just the chords, of course. There are Monk’s unique voicings and playful use of time as he states the melody, and then there’s his improvised solo, which I think is one of his very best, especially in the first chorus as he sets out like a brave explorer to chart a path through this curious harmonic landscape..

Ed Sheeran, eat your heart out!

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Yellow Tango

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on January 12, 2018 by telescoper

Before Christmas I posted one of my favourite pieces of music, The Fable of Mabel, performed by a band led by Serge Chaloff and featuring pianist Dick Twardzik (who also composed the piece). I thought I’d follow this up with another piece by Twardzik, this time in a trio with Carson Smith on bass and the excellent Peter Littman on drums.

This piece was recorded in late 1954, at which time the two great influences on jazz piano were Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Here’s a good example of how Twardzik manages to nod in the very different directions of these two great musicians – the Monk influence in particular stands out a mile when the rhythm switches from Latin-American to 4/4 at about 1:43 – while also managing to find a very original voicea which was all his own. It’s such a terrible shame that within a few months of this session Twardzik was dead (of a heroin overdose, at the age of 24) and jazz had lost one of its most promising young artists.

Thelonious Monk, Genius of Modern Music

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on November 21, 2017 by telescoper

I was delighted to discover that this week’s Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3 is none other than the great Thelonious Monk, who thoroughly deserves the honour as he was enormously influential as a composer as well as a bandleader and piano soloist. Many of Monk’s highly original compositions – such as Blue Monk, Straight No Chaser, In Walked Bud and ‘Round Midnight– have become jazz standards, but his unique approach to composition really changed the entire evolution of jazz in the immediate post-war era. In fact, Monk is the second-most recorded jazz composer ever, after Duke Ellington (a man he admired enormously and whose piano style influenced Monk’s).

The series of radio programmes about him is particularly timely as this year marks the centenary of his birth (10th October 1917).

In my top 50 jazz albums there would probably be about half a dozen by Thelonious Monk. I’ve loved his music since I heard the very first track by him way back when I was a teenager. Although he has often been given the nickname `The High Priest of Bop’, I’ve never really thought of him as fitting neatly in the bebop style – the archetypal bebop pianist was surely Bud Powell – but he was clearly a profound influence on others of that era, such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I should add that he was entirely self-taught, which is probably how he managed to get that instantly recognisable sound. You only need to hear one note to know that it’s Monk.

I think the word `genius’ is extremely overused these days, and I tend to reserve it for those who show such an astonishing level of creativity that you think to yourself `Where on Earth did that come from?’. In my opinion it is no exaggeration to apply the word `genius’ to Thelonious Monk. He was a very special artist. Indeed when he was signed up by the fledgling Blue Note label in 1947, they called his first albums Genius of Modern Music..

Anyway, when I listened to yesterday’s programme on iPlayer I remembered this, a compilation of Monk’s advice to band members (as collected by saxophonist Steve Lacy in 1960). As well as being in places very funny, it also contains a great deal of very sound advice for young musicians (especially the first, `Just because you’re not a DRUMMER, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to KEEP TIME’.

I also like `Don’t play the PIANO PART. I’m playing that.’. I’m sure there’s a story behind every one of these tips!

By way of my own little tribute to Thelonious Monk here’s one of my favourite Monk tunes, as recorded with Milt Jackson on vibes way back in 1948. It’s typically offbeat Monk composition, and also provides great examples of him as a soloist and accompanist. Just listen to what he does behind Milt Jackson’s solo on I Mean You, which appeared on Genius of Modern Music Vol. 1…

 

 

 

The Top 10 Jazz Artists

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on December 8, 2015 by telescoper

Back from a short break I thought I’d mention that BBC Radio 3 recently announced the results of a poll for the top Jazz artist of all time. The result was:

  1. Miles Davis
  2. Louis Armstrong
  3. Duke Ellington
  4. John Coltrane
  5. Ella Fitzgerald
  6. Charlie Parker
  7. Billie Holiday
  8. Thelonious Monk (8=)
  9. Bill Evans (8=)
  10. Oscar Peterson

Although my ordering would have been a little different, I was quite surprised that the top 10 corresponded so closely with my own selection. In fact 8 of the above list would have made it into mine: Miles Davis; Louis Armstrong; John Coltrane; Charlie Parker; Billie Holiday; Thelonious Monk; and Bill Evans.

The only differences were that (a) I couldn’t possibly have had Billie Holiday without having Lester Young and (b) I simply had to have Ornette Coleman in there. To accommodate Messrs Young and Coleman I would have displaced Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson. The latter are great artists, of course, but I wouldn’t say either influenced the development of Jazz as much as the others I mentioned, and that’s one of the criteria I applied.

miles-davis

No surprise that Miles Davis (above) came top. He changed musical direction so many times that he should actually count as four or five different musicians. It’s no coincidence that Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans all appeared on Kind of Blue, which is arguably the greatest jazz record of all time. I don’t think any serious Jazz enthusiast could have left out Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk either. And of course, Louis Armstrong just had to be there too. It’s hard to imagine what Jazz would have been without Satchmo. The same goes for the great Duke Ellington.

Anyway, it’s all a matter of personal choice. There are dozens of great jazz artists who didn’t make it into the top ten. Among my near misses were Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet, Eric Dolphy and Dizzy Gillespie.

Who else would you have picked?

 

Thelonious Monk – Misterioso

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on September 26, 2015 by telescoper

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.

Hat and Beard

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on September 22, 2015 by telescoper

I haven’t posted much Jazz recently, and was reminded of this fact when I listened to the following track on my iPod yesterday while travelling back from Cardiff to Brighton.  Hat and Beard is an original composition by one of my favourite jazz artists, saxophonist Eric Dolphy and was written in honour of another of my favourite jazz artists, Thelonious Monk, who not only sported a splendid beard but also had a famously eccentric taste in headgear…

hat and beard

Anyway, Hat and Beard is taken from the pioneering free jazz album Out to Lunch. This album is without doubt one of the high points of 1960s avant-garde jazz, primarily because of Dolphy’s extraordinary playing (in this case on bass clarinet) but also because of the brilliance of the other musicians: Freddie Hubbard on trumpet; Bobby Hutcherson on vibes; Richard Davis on bass; and the superb Tony Williams on drums (who was only 18 when this track was recorded).

Bloomdido – In Memoriam Charlie Parker

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on March 12, 2015 by telescoper

bird

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the death of the great saxophonist Charlie Parker (“Bird”) on 12th March 1955. I’ve written quite a few posts relating to Charlie Parker over the years but today has provided a good excuse to spend my lunchtime writing another one, this time featuring one of my favourite tracks from one of my favourite albums. First released in 1952 but in fact recorded in two separate sessions in 1949 and 1950, the album Bird and Diz was actually the last studio album made under the joint leadership of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the two main architects of the bebop revolution; the track I’ve picked has the added advantage of featuring another great musical genius on piano, Thelonious Monk.

The Charlie Parker composition Bloomdido is yet another of his variations on the blues, though this one is a bit less intricate than some of the others he wrote. Here are the chords for Bloomdido:

Bloomdido

You can see that the progression is based around the standard three chords of a blues in B♭. The foundation is a  “tonic” chord (T) based on the root note of whatever key it’s played in, in this case B♭. This sometimes a basic triad consisting of the first, third and five notes of a major scale starting on that note or, as in this example,  including the dominant 7th so it’s B♭7. The next chord is the subdominant chord  (S), shifting things up by a perfect fourth relative to the tonic, in this case an E♭7 and then finally we have the dominant (D) which brings us up by a fifth from the original root note, in this case F7.

The basic blues sequence in B♭ would be four bars of B♭7 (T), two of E♭7 (S), back to B♭7 (T) for two, then the characteristic bluesy cadence returning to two bars of  B♭7 (T) via one bar each of F7 (D) and E♭7 (S). The sequence for Bloomdido has a few alterations, including a characteristic turnaround at the end instead of the tonic, but is otherwise fairly recognizable. I guess the first part of the title  is a play on the blues origin too, though I wonder if the second part suggests that some of the alterations are inspired by the A-section of the  Juan Tizol standard Perdido?

Some people tell me they find Charlie Parker’s music “too technical” and that somehow if music “needs to be explained” it’s not good music. I don’t understand that attitude at all. I find this music so fascinating and exciting to listen to that I want to try to dig a little bit into it and find out what’s going underneath the surface. It’s particularly striking what a difference a few substitutions and passing chords can make to the overall harmonic “feel” of a piece like this compared to a standard blues sequence, for example. But you don’t need to study the chords to appreciate the sheer beauty of the music that Charlie Parker built on these harmonic foundations; his solo on this track, as on so many others he recorded in his short life,  is just sublime even if you don’t realise how hard it is to play! I guess it all depends whether your way of enjoying a thing is to sit back and let it wash over you, or for it to inspire you to find out more. Many of the physicists I know are deeply interested in music. Perhaps that’s because they’re the sort of people who don’t just think “wow that’s beautiful”, they tend to think “wow that’s beautiful – how does it work?”.

Charlie Parker and Albert Einstein died in the same year, just over a month apart, the former in March 1955 and the latter in April. They were two very different geniuses but it’s as difficult to imagine physics without  Einstein as jazz without Bird.