Thursday, July 15, 2010

album of the day: Brilliant Corners

Thelonious Monk is my hero.

This is one of the most challenging jazz records of its era. Listening to Monk is always challenging, because of his odd angular approach to melody, harmony, rhythm, composition, life, etc. Backed by his own stride-inflected left hand, Monk's solos tinkled and tripped around in ways that seem, to the untrained ear, accidental, whereas, in many cases, it is. (In the documentary film produced by Clint Eastwood, there's a snippet of Monk playing on Japanese television. In the middle of "Just A Gigolo," Monk clearly surprises himself by a missed chord, then picks up the accident and uses it as a figure for several choruses.)

In fact, words like surprise and tripped are about the best way to describe Monk's music. There's really nobody like him in modern jazz. I do love an iconoclast.

The musicians attempting to perform this music include major heavyweights Sonny Rollins on tenor, Max Roach on drums, Oscar Pettiford on bass (Paul Chambers spells Pettiford on one track), along with lesser-known altoist Ernie Henry and, on one track, Duke Ellington trumpeter Clark Terry. That's an extremely impressive lineup.

I have read what might be an apocryphal story about the recording of the title track. The tune has an odd rhythm and multiple changes of tempo, very strangely shaped spaces for solos, and an unusual interval. Supposedly, nobody could play it straight through, so the track on record is actually several takes taped together. (Though this is the story told in the Wikipedia article, so obviously this is gospel truth.)

Following this is a slow-tempo, loping blues called "Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are," which is more standard, except that Monk plays about 13 dozen choruses of solo that make no sense, which I love, before passing off to Rollins, who slaps the tune silly.

Then, "Pannonica," named after Monk's long-time companion/friend/erstwhile lover Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. A happy accident led to this strange performance: Monk found a celeste in the recording studio, and positioned it next to the piano so that he could play the celeste right-handed and the piano left-handed. The chiming celeste is, to me at least, disconcerting, in a very nice way. There's a curious tension in the horns' harmony throughout the head of the tune, which never really resolves - also somewhat off-putting, but I like Monk's off-putting. (I guess it's not really off-putting in that case, eh? Language fails. As usual. Stupid language!)

Monk plays without accompaniment on the only non-Monk tune on the album, "I Surrender, Dear." I tend to think Monk sounds better with at least a bass and drum kit, but there are several solo performances among his recordings that knock me he heck out. This might not sound very nice, but I mean it in the nicest possible way - what Monk can do solo is project a kind of desolation, which I mean in an existential sense: an abject and lonely despair at the fact of being, the futurity of not being, and the gap between. This track comes close to that as well, but remains this side of it, I think by way of staying inside a performance space, a thoughtful and virtuoso space. Interesting bit.

The album wraps up with the gloriously kooky "Bemsha Swing," co-written by Monk and drummer Denzil Best in the 40s. Max Roach plays drums and timpani on the track, gleefully pounding away and giving the tune an off-kilter rhythm that works very well with the composition.

There's an old Steven Wright gag that helps explain Monk's music as well as my love for it. He would ask the audience if they know that feeling you get when you lean your chair back too far and are just about tip over, then say "I feel like that all the time." That's Monk's genius.

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