Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Sphere of a Bop Planet: Thelonious Monk 100

My neighborhood -- and my bedroom -- are full of smoke from the Napa fires and I may asphyxiate halfway through this post, but before I abandon my meager belongings for higher ground, there's a crucial birthday post to handle.
This is the second 100th birthday celebration in 10 days... Buddy Rich and today's superhero actually played together alongside Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in 1950, on the classic Bird and Diz sessions.
I am sitting here trying to come up with a more influential and individual piano person of the 20th century and I am stuck. Bill Evans? George Gershwin, but he only played the black keys. Cecil Taylor? Without today's honoree, there likely is no Cecil Taylor.... at least not the one we recognize from ten thousand keyboard assaults.
No, our man of the hour stands alone. Or gets up mid-solo and dances around the studio alone. In the pantheon of pianistic perfection, the name Thelonious Sphere Monk peaks the pyramid.
He is 100 today, unbelievable. His compositions don't age, they actually get younger and more supple with the years. I am one of those people that thinks The Star Spangled Banner is tawdry old militarized shite, and that Epistrophy should be the National Anthem.
Blue Monk. Criss-Cross. Ruby. My Dear. Well, You Needn't. I could spend the rest of this screed just namechecking his life changing tunes and not name them all.
He was mentored by the incredible Mary Lou Williams --  there's another post for another day if ever there was one -- and beginning in the 1940s, he began to take over the cutting edges of Jazz with his completely unique, instantly recognizable style and harmonic approach.
Certainly one of the formative, unavoidably essential architects of Bebop, by the turn of the 1950s he was to be found in the company of its other acknowledged inventors, making the records that would help form its firmament.
Initially his LPs sold poorly, and his music was deemed "too difficult" for the mainstream. It got worse before it got better, when a drug bust -- and a later refusal to implicate fellow piano deity Bud Powell in the score -- cost him his Cabaret Card and he was unable to play clubs for several years.
He was unfazed, using those years to play theaters, rehearse and compose feverishly. When he re-emerged upon the live Jazz scene in full force in 1957, his star began to rise again and by decade's end he was making ageless, seminal records with the likes of John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
Eventually, with the advent of Free Jazz and the opening up of Jazz's perceived parameters, music would catch up to what he was doing, and he became acknowledged as the unprecedented creative force we think of him as today. In the 1980s -- Monk passed in 1982 -- Clint Eastwood executive produced a documentary about his life that is now considered one of the best music docs of all time: Straight, No Chaser.
There isn't a whole lot of as-yet-unissued material around on a luminary such as he, but there are a couple of things that fit the bill. Chief among these are two unreleased TV appearances dating from Europe in the mid-1960s, supplied below for your enjoyment and edification, and to celebrate this most milestone birthday of this most foundational figure.
Thelonious Monk Quartet
SWF Studio
Baden-Baden, Germany

01 intro
02 Off Minor
03 Bye Bye When the Morning Comes
04 'Round Midnight
05 Blue Monk
06 Criss Cross
07 outro

Total time: 24:34

Thelonious Monk - piano
Charlie Rouse - tenor saxophone
John Ore - bass
Frankie Dunlop - drums

PAL DVD of a 2007 SWF rebroadcast, reworked for better synch and w/PCM audio

Thelonious Monk Quartet
unknown venue
Warsaw, Poland

01 Epistrophy
02 'Round Midnight
03 Lulu's Back In Town

Total time: 26:37

Thelonious Monk - piano
Charlie Rouse - tenor saxophone
Larry Gales - bass
Ben Riley - drums

PAL DVD of a digital capture of a recent satellite rebroadcast
both DVDs zipped together
That's two gigs of Monk, you read that right! Look out for his go-to tenor molester of distinction, Charlie Rouse, on both of these (yes they are smokin') performances, as he melts reeds at ten paces and supplies the foil to Monk's antics as always.
I shall return on the weekend with an overdue tribute to the fallen, but for now we need to properly commemorate the centennial of one of the most important and harmonically innovative musicians of this or any lifetime, so let's get you clickin' on these TV shows before another hundred years go by! And it goes without saying how much we adore and remember Thelonious Monk, born this day in 1917 and still twisting the air into fascinating crepuscules a full century on.--J.
10.10.1917 - 2.17.1982