MONK’S DREAMS / MONK: Thelonious. Light Blue. Played Twice. Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are. Ask Me Now. Humph. Bright Mississippi. Reflections. Bemsha Swing. Teo. Blue Sphere. Crespuscle With Nellie. Think of One. 52nd Street Theme. Eronel. Bluehawk. Little Rootie Tootie. Two Timer. Ruby My Dear. Boo Boo’s Birthday. San Francisco Holiday. Functional. I Mean You. Shuffle Boil. Monk’s Dream. Evidence. Misterioso. Four in One. Brake’s Sake. Pannonica. Bye-Ya. North on the Sunset. Introspection. We See. In Walked Bud. Nutty. Trinkle Tinkle. Blues Five Spot. ‘Round Midnight. Jackie-ing. Well You Needn’t. Sixteen. Locomotive. Gallop’s Gallop. Children’s Song. Blue Monk. Friday the 13th. Criss Cross. Raise Four. Let’s Call This. Who Knows? A Merrier Christmas. Stuffy Turkey. Monk’s Point. Work. Brilliant Corners. Off Minor. Hackensack. Oska T. Let’s Cool One. Hornin’ In. Coming on the Hudson. Straight No Chaser. Monk’s Mood. Green Chimneys. Rhythm-a-ning. Ugly Beauty. Skippy. Something in Blue. Epistrophy / Frank Kimbrough, pno/arr; Scott Robinson, t-sax/bs-sax/tpt/echo ct/bs-cl/contrabass sarrusophone; Rufus Reid, bs; Billy Drummond, dm / Sunnyside Records SSC 4032
Seventy of Thelonious Monk’s compositions, not including a few that he made up on the spot during a gig like Chordially, are presented here on six well-filled CDs by pianist Frank Kimbrough and his talented quartet. Although Kimbrough has not been a “Monk specialist” over the decades of his career, he has evidently always studied and occasionally played his music and always got something vital and important out of them.
There are, of course, two ways to view this set. One would be if they were consciously trying to channel Monk’s style, including his quirky and asymmetric sense of rhythm: this they only do occasionally. The second would be to listen to the set as Kimbrough’s own “take” on Monk, slightly changed in tempo and rhythm, not trying to replicate Monk but presenting him in a new light. Since this is the course this set has taken, the question becomes, “How successful is it in that respect?”
Actually, it is pretty successful as long as you realize from track 1 of CD 1 that this voluminous exploration of Monk is a tribute in which most of the songs are rearranged to suit Kimbrough’s vision of the music. After all, the quirky, often stiff-sounding rhythms of Monk’s own performances (the late Ralph Berton called him “the Stravinsky of jazz”) are seldom played correctly by anybody. Say what you like, but Thelonious Monk is much harder to imitate than Art Tatum. In addition, Kimbrough often changes the tempo and/or the original scoring that Monk used, i.e. using a contrabass sarrusophone on Little Rootie Tootie. It’s another way of looking at Monk’s music, which is why I think the set is appropriately titled Monk’s Dreams.
Yet more often than not, Kimbrough stays close to Monk’s tempi and use of instruments, particularly in the opener, Thelonious, which the pianist-composer often used as a theme song. Here, multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson plays crisp trumpet, sounding a bit like Clark Terry in tone during his solo, then quickly switching to tenor sax which he plays in the high range, sounding a bit like Sonny Stitt. Kimbrough’s own solo may not have Monk’s quirky rhythms and splayed-fingered attack, but he clearly understands the unusual descending chromatics of the chord progression and has a ball with it. The rhythm section sounds joyous and effervescent in the background.
In the very next song, Light Blue, Kimbrough’s rearrangement shows how he sometimes chose to differ from the original. The opening chorus keeps trying to play the theme, but the musicians keep slowing down and stopping every two bars until, finally, they decide to keep the pace up. The tempo here is a bit slower than the slowest performance I’ve previously heard by Monk himself. The great Rufus Reid gets to play a really nice, inventive chorus on this one, bending notes and playing around with the time. Kimbrough’s solo, as in many of these tracks, takes a halfway point between standard jazz piano style and Monk style, and Robinson’s tenor here does have a certain resemblance to Charlie Rouse, Monk’s favorite tenor player.
With 70 tracks to review, I clearly won’t have enough space in this review to discuss them all, so allow me to make a few comments on the more unusual and/or impressive ones. Played Twice, like several other tracks, is given a swing treatment, but Robinson’s tenor captures the rhythmic quirkiness of Monk’s own approach. A swing feel is not entirely foreign to Monk’s aesthetic; he loved swing music and especially Duke Ellington, who he based his piano style on. One of the really satisfying aspects of these performances is the way the whole quartet works and “feels” the music together, presenting a unified view of each score. It’s obvious to the listener than they all love Monk, not just Kimbrough.
One little touch that surprised me was the very breathy sound of Robinson’s tenor in the opening out-of-tempo into to Ask Me Now. I mention this because in an odd way, it reminded me of Pee Wee Russell’s wonderful recording of this tune for Impulse on the album of the same name. I wonder if Robinson and/or Kimbrough listened to that performance. Interestingly, Robinson’s trumpet on Bright Mississippi clearly shows its origins using the chord changes of Sweet Georgia Brown by playing that earlier tune in the last four bars of his solo. Robinson switches to bass sax on Bemsha Swing to good effect.
Think of One was one of about a half-dozen titles in this set I had never heard before; it’s quintessential Monk, a quirky tune with a stutter-step in it, using a single note repeated in an odd rhythm as a melody.
The overall impression one gets, then, is of a very gifted and unified (I stress that again) quartet playing Monk as if they couldn’t get enough of him in new arrangements that sometimes channel the originals but often take unexpected new turns. Monk himself may not have liked some of these performances—he was often critical of his own versions, so who knows?—but the set certainly gives you a good impression of Thelonious as a jazz composer, and that’s what is important in the long run. On Blackhawk, Robinson plays both trumpet and echo cornet, using the latter to answer his own phrases; a chase chorus played by one man.
San Francisco Holiday, another tune I hadn’t heard before, is one of those pieces that, although fascinating in a way that only Monk could be, sounds a bit crazy, a swirling downward chromatic melody in eighth notes set to almost demonic-sounding harmonies. Most of these performances really cook, and I Mean You is just one of many where you just put your critical judgments aside and enjoy the performance. In the liner notes, Kimbrough says that he tried to stay away as much as possible from pedal effects, which Monk seldom used, and try for a more percussive sound, and this is one track where that comes across beautifully. Reid also plays nice bass on this one, trading fours with Billy Drummond, but I wish Reid had a little more to play on some tracks. Crepuscle With Nellie, a true composition that calls for no improvisation, and Functional are given as piano solos. Shuffle Boil is another tune that Kimbrough takes at a slower tempo than Monk normally did, but still has a Monk “kick” to it.
Evidence sounds, through most of it, like a piano trio performance, but near the end Robinson comes flying in on tenor, moving the intensity and interest up to another level. Misterioso is yet another piece taken at a different tempo, in this case a shade faster than Monk’s own. Once again, Robinson plays the contrabass sarrusophone, and here it sounds even more like an old, grumbling bullfrog. Somehow, Robinson manages to throw in a reference to Mack Gordon’s Serenade in Blue during his solo in the very complex Four in One. I also liked the nice slow-dance swagger the band gave to Pannonica, Monk’s tribute to the legendary “jazz baroness,” Nica von Königswarter. Bye-Ya, on which Robinson plays bass sax, is given a quasi-Latin beat mixed with swing. Introspection, another Monk tune I was not previously familiar with, is one of his more “normal” swing pieces, not terribly adventurous harmonically and thus easily accessible to even trad-swing musicians. On We See Robinson switches to another odd instrument, the “echo cornet” (switching to normal trumpet for the last chorus).
Kimbrough’s arrangement of Monk’s most famous piece, ‘Round Midnight, is another one of his more imaginative, starting with Reid’s bass playing against Drummond’s cymbal washes for a full chorus. (One of Monk’s finest arrangements of this tune was the one made for Dizzy Gillespie’s big band of the 1940s, captured in a live concert recording.) Jackie-ing is given a sort of kooky, off-rhythm Latin sound, like a conga with one beat missing in each bar and the drummer playing backwards. The bass sax makes its return in Well, You Needn’t, on which Kimbrough plays one of his most Monk-like solos. Sixteen is one of Monk’s quirkiest pieces; it doesn’t really sound like a finished composition, but more like a string of uneasily-related riffs, yet the quartet manages to make something “finished” out of it. Locomotive, despite the mental images conjured up by the title, is taken at a slow, insinuating pace with Robinson on bass clarinet.
Gallop’s Gallop was another piece I hadn’t heard before, but again, it is typically Monk-ish. Kimbrough smoothes out the rhythm of Blue Monk just a little but still captures its essence. They do a really bang-up Monk-style version of Criss Cross and manage to make something interesting out of yet another sketchy tune, Raise Four. By contrast, Let’s Call This, another piece I hadn’t previously heard, is a real composition with a really lovely melodic line. The equally obscure Who Knows? is one of Monk’s finest pieces, using downward chromatics along with stepwise chord changes, which alternate with more conventional ones. Robin’s bass sax is literally bursting with ideas on this one. I was also surprised by the gentleness and lyrical quality of A Merrier Christmas. Robinson plays his tenor mostly in its high range on this one, sounding a little like Paul Desmond. Stuffy Turkey, another little-known tune, is a real swinger, with Robinson coming in like a banshee for his soprano sax solo.
Their performance of yet another little-known piece, Monk’s Point, makes it sound like abstract jazz; it’s broken up into little shards or motifs on the piano, with the bass and drum creating unusual, shifting patterns behind it. Like Monk himself, Kimbrough and his quartet make a real swinger out of Work. The contrabass sarrusophone makes another surprise appearance on Brilliant Corners, a piece on which Monk himself used bright, not dark, voicing (personally, I think the trumpet would have been more appropriate on this one). At about the halfway mark they quadruple the tempo for a chorus, then return to the slower pace until Kimbrough’s second solo chorus when he ramps it up once again. The sarrusaphone appears again on Straight, No Chaser while Monk’s Mood starts off played by the bass with piano and soft cymbal fills.
Rhythm-a-ning is a real jamfest, with Robinson wailing on both the bass sax and trumpet and Drummond going nuts behind all of them. After a nice performance of Ugly Beauty and a really hot one of Skippy, we get an absolutely lovely performance of the little-known Something in Blue (with Robinson’s soft, breathy tenor sounding quite a bit like Ben Webster) before ending the set with Monk’s earliest known tune (first recorded in 1942 by Cootie Williams as Fly Right) and one of his signature pieces, Epistrophy. This is given a polyrhythmic beat, with Kimbrough playing eights rather than the traditional triplets in the background while Robinson plays the melody on baritone. The band then stretches it out while straightening out the beat and really swinging to the finish line.
Poor Thelonious suffered most of his adult life from paranoid schizophrenia, which was not properly treated because it wasn’t learned until several years after his death that it was caused by a virus, and thus treatable with tetracycline. Monk went in and out of mental hospitals at various points in his career, yet somehow was able to create a unique sound world of “ugly beauty” that has stood the test of time. Like all paranoid schizophrenics, he had his lucid moments and could be unusually kind and understanding towards the musicians who played with him, but in his dark moments he was anti-social, isolated and unreachable, even by his long-suffering and loving wife, Nellie, the only person who could handle him. Yet I don’t know a single jazz musician—not even most trad jazz musicians—who doesn’t see and hear much of Monk’s music as unique and vital. This is probably due to the fact that it always had a connection to the Swing Era, which is when Monk came to maturity. Like the idiosyncratic classical music of Moondog, Thelonious Monk’s jazz is tied to tradition while breaking barriers that no one else could hear coming. And there is also the fact that, once you get used to the unusual harmonies and occasional Stravinsky-like rhythms, it’s fun to play, just like the music of Ellington and Fats Waller.
On this wonderful set, it’s also fun to listen to.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge