“A genius is the one most like himself.” – Thelonious Monk
Pianist and composer Thelonious Sphere Monk is another true original. He did what very few other people have done, which is to develop a distinctive, unique sound on the piano. It’s much harder to sound different on the piano because so many of the variables are out of your control, but through his heavy touch, his concept of the music and his unique harmonic sensibilities Monk really stands out.
Part of what makes him special is that he figured out a way to make very dissonant and angular things sound good. Dissonance is defined as “lack of harmony between musical notes.” If you want to get the idea, go to a piano and play any two adjacent notes at the same time. That interval is called a minor second, and it’s the most dissonant of all intervals. But Monk used this all the time and made it sound right somehow. I don’t think there’s a theoretical or scientific way to explain how he was able to do this. My theory is that since it sounded right to Monk, in his head, he played it with such conviction that it sounds right to us.
There’s a big lesson to be learned, and that is echoed in the quote at the top of this email. Monk was so sure of himself, and so true to his sense of self, that he was able to convince us that he was right even if others doing the exact same thing could not. Intention is key in jazz music, and in all aspects of life.
Monk has the distinction of being the second most recorded jazz composer, behind Duke Ellington. That is particularly amazing since Duke wrote more than 1,000 songs and Monk wrote just 70. But those 70 songs are so well respected by other jazz musicians that they continue to record them to this day.
Monk was at the center of the birth of bebop, but he was able to take the music in other directions too. He used blues, church music and his distinctive angularity to create his songs. You’ll see what I mean with today’s featured song, called “Epistrophy”:
That’s Monk on piano, with his longtime collaborator Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, Butch Warren on bass and Frankie Dunlap on drums. Did you notice how the song seemed more dissonant than some of the others we have listened to but still sounds cool? That’s no small feat.
I want to give you not one, but two bonus tracks today. I played “Epistrophy” because I think it perfectly demonstrates what Monk was about. But his most famous tune is “‘Round Midnight”. This song has been recorded over 1000 different times and is the most recorded jazz standard of all time. It’s a beautiful ballad, and I’ll give you two versions: the first is Monk himself, with John Coltrane on sax: The second is one with vocals from Carmen McRae:
The second is one with vocals from Carmen McRae. I could talk for days about how amazing Carmen McRae is, but I’ll just let the music do the talking. If you like her, or Monk, check out her album “Carmen Sings Monk.”
We’ve heard from John Coltrane on a couple of featured tracks so far, but we haven’t talked about him in his own right, so he’s up tomorrow.
Jason Parker is a Seattle-based jazz trumpet player, educator and writer. His band, The Jason Parker Quartet, was hailed by Earshot Jazz as “the next generation of Seattle jazz.” Find out more about Jason and his music at jasonparkermusic.com.