Six Degrees of Thelonious Monk’s Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 2

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 05.16.11 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

Genius Of Modern Music: Vol. 2 (The Rudy Van Gelder Edition)

Thelonious Monk

By the time Monk recorded these quintet and sextet dates for Blue Note in 1951 and '52, he was a long way from being a success — let alone a jazz saint. But the original tunes he brought are among his finest: the skittering "Skippy"; "Four in One," whose frantic phrases have tripped up more than one interpreter; "Ask Me Now," one of his lyrical ballads; and the celebrated, stuttering "Criss Cross," abstract even by the standards of the bebop movement where Monk never quite fit. As pianist, he's a trickster who at the same moment could sound like a fumbling amateur, mashing more keys than the ones he slowly took aim at, and reveal himself as a startling modernist, master of impacted dissonant harmonies. His gap-toothed solos gave the impression his pianos had 22 working keys. Monk's thinking was so advanced, his music didn't enjoy wide currency till after his death in 1982. But some folks had been listening.

The Forefather

The Pianist

Duke Ellington

When Ellington first heard Monk on Blue Note in 1948, he said, "Sounds like he's stealing some of my stuff." The skeletal blues themes, hints of early jazz rhythms from the pianist's left hand, the fat percussive chords and weighty silences Monk was known for – Ellington had beat him to all of that, even if Monk exaggerated those traits. On The Pianist a set of late-career Ellington trio sides from 1966 and '70 the stylistic parallels are clear throughout "Tap Dancer's Blues," "Sam Woodyard's Blues" and "Fat Mess." But Duke could also finesse the keys. "Never Stop Remembering Bill" is a ballad for aide Billy Strayhorn, who once arranged Thelonious's "Monk's Dream" for Duke. Monk had a way with the maestro's tunes, too: Hear Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington.

The Fellow Traveler


Mary Lou Williams

Monk met pianist Mary Lou Williams in Kansas City in 1935, while he was touring with an evangelist, and she was writing for and playing in Andy Kirk's big band. They renewed their friendship in the '40s after she moved to New York and encouraged younger contemporaries like Monk, Bud Powell and Herbie Nichols. Like Thelonious, as a pianist she was a modernist with one foot in the past; early jazz rhythms were part of the mix, even in the 1970s, when free jazz titan Cecil Taylor was one her more famous admirers. Monk obviously dug her composing; his "Rhythm-a-Ning" takes off from a phrase she wrote into "Walkin' and Swingin'" for Kirk in 1936. Later, she'd record an arrangement of "Oh! Lady Be Good" that Monk transformed into "Hackensack" (and Coleman Hawkins claimed as "Rifftide").

The Next Step

Jazz Advance

Cecil Taylor

Monk's rude splanking on two adjacent keys was nothing new; Jelly Roll Morton was doing stuff like that on 1923's "New Orleans Joys." But Monk's modern take on dissonant piano paved the way for Taylor, whose 1956 debut Jazz Advance is an early glimmer of the avant-garde. The selections reveal his roots: Monk's "Bemsha Swing," one of Thelonious's favorite standards, "Sweet and Lovely," and Ellington's "Azure." The mature Taylor's lightning-fast articulation isn't there yet, but you can't miss the Monkish percussives, tempered by the funky grit of Horace Silver's keyboard grunts. Taylor makes a trio with bass virtuoso Buell Neidlinger and drummer Denis Charles think Art Blakey with a Caribbean lilt. Not to mention soprano saxist Steve Lacy, who appears on two tracks, before he became immersed in Monk's music.

The Acolyte

Monk's Dream

Steve Lacy

Soprano saxophonist Lacy recorded the first album of Monk covers, 1958's Reflections, and soon after he and trombonist Roswell Rudd had a quartet that played only (and all) Monk tunes. Both were progressives who'd come up playing Dixieland, and their spontaneous counterpoint is so tuneful and structurally sound you barely notice there's no piano. Their blend is one of jazz's joys hear also their 1976 reunion Trickles. On this 1999 meeting, they play "Monk's Dream" and his lovely ballad "Pannonica," a miniaturization of Ellington's blues growl "Koko," and lots of Lacy. He'd played a few months with Monk in 1960, copying down his wise pronouncements. Maturing as a composer in the 1970s, Lacy aimed for his idol's childlike freshness and unhurried gait in puckish ditties like "The Bath." You can almost hear Monk's piano striding through.

Distant Admirer

Four in One

Misha Mengelberg Quartet

As a teenager in Holland after World War II, Misha Mengelberg heard Monk's Blue Note releases early, and by the late '50s he was able to replicate Monk's very particular piano sound. Meeting Monk in 1961, he asked why Thelonious never played "Criss Cross" anymore. When Monk professed not to remember it, Misha sat and played it for him. (Monk re-recorded it two years later.) Mengelberg's piano style edged away from Monk a bit, as he helped shape "European improvised music," a movement which also roped in Monkophile pianists Alex Schlippenbach and Irene Schweitzer. From the '80s, Misha often played Monk pieces with his ICP Orchestra and small groups. Three early Monk tunes blend seamlessly with Misha's earworms on 2000's Four in One, with three players he esteems: trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Brad Jones and Dutch co-conspirator Han Bennink on drums.