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Thelonious Monk’s surreally strange and spartan genius gets its due | Music | The Guardian

Thelonious Monk's surreally strange and spartan genius gets its due | Music | The Guardian

Thelonious Monk's surreally strange and spartan genius gets its due
John Fordham Wednesday 12 July 2017 07.00 BST

Thelonious Monk, Photograph: Gilles Petard/Redferns
Just for his name alone, the presence of Thelonious Monk on the planet between 1917 and 1982 has probably registered with more people who know little and care less about jazz than almost any other of its legends. To have been fortunate enough to have actually heard and seen the piano-playing and composing genius from Rocky Mount, Carolina on stage feels like the jazz equivalent of watching Picasso paint.
In performance, Monk was a taciturn, preoccupied figure, with a predilection for goatee beards and headgear from fedoras to fezes that gave him the air of the quintessential hipster, but his approach to a piano, with his inelegant splayed-finger manner of striking the keyboard, was his alone. His feet appeared to operate independently to the rest of his anatomy, flapping wildly to the summons of his bumpy rhythms, sometimes bearing him away from the piano stool and across the stage in halting rhythmic staggers and shuffles, while his companions played on.

Landmarks of jazz history that make sense to today’s audiences… John Beasley’s Monkestra at Ronnie Scott’s in London. Photograph: Steven Cropper
Monk’s improvisations were not graceful or conventionally virtuosic, but they were gems of concision and unexpected phrasing. In their jagged shapes and jarring dissonances, they sometimes sounded more like avant-garde classical music than jazz, but the impression was misleading – Monk’s music was rooted in African-American forms and the variations took wing only from his wayward imagination.
To have seen the piano-playing and composing genius on stage feels the jazz equivalent of watching Picasso paint.
His compositions echoed early-jazz piano styles that looked back to ragtime, hymnal harmonies (he was a church pianist early on) or were peppered with zigzagging bebop themes that resolved in startled, dissonant hoots. His tunes often slammed to sudden halts, or would unfold in slow dirges hanging across chasms of mysterious silences. But however surreally strange Monk’s music could be, his knotty themes always exhibited a kind of spartan beauty, and his piano-playing as an improviser was of a piece with a composing sensibility that still fascinates and influences musicians today.
This centenary year of Monk’s birth has already seen the Monkathon – a nine-day multi-artist recital of all his compositions, a festival in New York’s Lincoln Center, and, in October, the Thelonious Monk Insitute of Jazz hosts a special edition of its world-famous jazz competition for rising stars.

Wayward imagination… Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) Photograph: David Redfern/DAVID REDFERN / Redferns
But one of the most intriguing bands dedicated to the late composer’s work is the 15-piece MONK’estra big band from Los Angeles, led by the 56-year-old pianist, composer and arranger John Beasley, in London to celebrate the centenary with two shows at Ronnie Scott’s this week. Beasley, whose CV embraces work with Rihanna and Slumdog Millionaire composer AR Rahman as well as jazz celebrities including Miles Davis and Dianne Reeves, draws on a wealth of references from across contemporary music. He fervently wants the landmarks of jazz history to make sense for today’s audiences, particularly young ones – but he’s also a dedicated and technically erudite Monk fan to the tips of his fingers – which was incandescently evident on Monday’s show.
Beasley approach is to thread Monk’s famous and lesser-known tunes into new orchestral settings while leaving Monk’s tightly edited original themes strictly alone. He changes the harmonies and the instrumental textures as if holding them up to constantly changing angles of light, stretching the rhythms with hip-hop beats and funk, presenting the results in more audience-friendly ways than Monk would ever have done.
Monday’s set opened with the 1941 Monk classic Epistrophy – originally a steadily repeated rising and falling phrase with a punchily contrasting rhythmic swagger to the countermelody, reworked almost as a piece of modern minimalism, building out of intertwining woodwind lines and hip-hop and Latin grooves morphing into sleazy brass hooks and torchy slow glides. The lyrical Ask Me Now was a delectable purr of flugelhorns and bass clarinets into which the leader stroked the tender melody on the melodica, and the lesser-known Brake’s Sake was an assertive rap vehicle, touching on aspects of Monk’s life, for dreadlocked trumpeter Dontae Winslow.

John Beasley and the MONK’estra. Photograph: Eric Wolfinger
One of the composer’s most delightfully headlong melodies, the manically spiralling Skippy, slyly opened as an austerely abstract free-improv trombone overture, before turning funky and then swinging under soprano saxophonist Bob Sheppard’s eloquent break, while Beasley steered the crowd’s hand-clapping through the treacherous groove shifts. The show wound up on Monk’s best-known theme, ’Round Midnight – here with added soul-horn hooks and hip-hop backbeat. But in the leader’s quiet reminders of the famous melody as a piano undertow to drifting clouds of trombone and flute harmonies punctuated by trumpet flares, it caught the original’s mood of bluesily soulful late-night melancholy uncannily well.
The trick to a Monk update is to make it sound like Monk – rather than a set of urban grooves with a few generically jazz-hip inflections tacked on that aren’t specific to the identity of one of the 20th century’s most remarkable composers. John Beasley and his MONK’estra pull off that tough task with devotion, vision and awesome technique.
•The Big Band season at Ronnie Scott’s continues until October. MONK’estra Vol 2 is out on 1 September on Mack Avenue.


Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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