Rearranging Monk, Without the Weirdness

Thelonious Monk would have turned 80 on Oct. 10. It’s a pity he’s not here to cast a quizzical eye on the current Monk Madness.

Recently, trumpeter Darren Barrett won the 11th annual Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Competition, a jazz-world bauble that increases in prestige every year. Leslie Gourse’s so-so Monk biography, Straight, No Chaser (Schirmer Books), just hit the shelves, the first of three bios that we can expect to see in the coming year. And two recent homages to Monk that recast some of his most famous songs as big-band arrangements are out: Monk on Monk (N2K Encoded Music), by Monk’s son, drummer T.S. Monk, and Brilliant Corners (JVC), by the veteran West Coast bandleader Bill Holman.

Why Thelonious? Why now? T.S. Monk, in town with his Monk “tentet” at Birdland, Nov. 4 through Nov. 9, believes he knows the answer. But then T.S., as didactic with the press as his father was famously silent, seems to have an answer for everything.

“Basically, 9.8 out of 10 players today don’t have any philosophy,” he said. “That’s because they got mired down in the technical side of the music and weren’t privy to the philosophy like I was, the philosophy of being yourself on your instrument. I think this resurgence of interest in Thelonious is partly about young players being startled by how unique Monk is. How he is so Monk, every time. And I think they want that for themselves.” Leave aside the self-serving quotient (not so easy for some, considering that T.S. Monk moved from his father’s band into R&B-funk in the 70’s) and the man has a point.

Because Monk the elder was the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where bebop was born, he was dubbed “the high priest of bebop.” It was a misleading honorific, though as T.S. notes, “he did supply some of the harmonic grease.” Monk today is hailed as a paragon of individuality precisely because he didn’t sound like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, who have since been imitated to death. Bop was about fast tempos and slashing rhythms and complex harmonies; when it came to compositional form, it wasn’t about much. Cannibalizing the chord changes of Tin Pan Alley standards, the beboppers broke down a tune into a makeshift collection of solos, riffs and breaks. It was Monk who provided the compositional space and air. Were it not for the 70-some Monk tunes in the relatively slim modern jazz songbook (T.S. says he’s discovered a dozen more in the drawers), hard-blowing modern boppers would have passed out from the boredom of playing the same old chord changes long ago.

In contrast to late-career Duke Ellington and his self-selected protégé Wynton Marsalis, both of whom have tried to raise jazz’s status by composing in long form (in the case of Mr. Marsalis’ Blood on the Fields , very long form), Monk was a composer in miniature. Working solo or in a small combo, using the simple structures of the popular song and the blues, Monk could suggest an almost orchestral variety and subtlety of tones. Rhythmically, his stutter steps followed the beat of a different drummer, one that nobody else has ever been able to find. Monk was, in Ellington’s phrase, “beyond category,” to such a degree that he’s been claimed by Africanophile musicians, who say that his percussive approach turned the European piano into an African instrument, and by Europhiles, who say Monk elevated the humble jazz tune into a “composition for instruments.”

We non-polemicists can just listen to Monk. But it’s the poor jazz arranger who has to figure out how to take music this idiosyncratic and turn it into big-band fare. “It’s the rhythmic displacements and the minor seconds [dissonances] that make Monk Monk,” T.S. Monk said. “And if you remove them, you don’t got nothin’.” The problem is, big bands have a way of sounding like an old person’s idea of young music, a safe house for bombastic Swing Era clichés. As usual, T.S. Monk has the answer, which he said he and his arranger Don Sickler lifted from somebody else.

In 1959 and 1963, the arranger Hall Overton worked with Thelonious Monk on two recordings with a tentet that turned out surprisingly well ( The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall on Riverside and Big Band and Quartet in Concert on Columbia). Overton threw over the conventions of big-band writing-the blaring, battling reed and brass sections-and preserved that weird, spare Monkness, adding a tuba and a soprano sax to the ensemble so that the horns could mirror the tonal range of Monk’s piano. (“Overton wrote for the horns like they were Monk’s fingers,” said jazz writer Peter Keepnews, whose Monk biography-in-progress will undoubtedly be the best of the current lot.)

Said T.S. Monk: “Einstein discovered the theory of relativity. Nobody else can discover it. So there’s no point in trying to rediscover how to approach Thelonious’ music from an orchestral standpoint. Hall Overton did it. Don Sickler took that and modernized the sound because it’s 1997, not 1957.”

Unfortunately for T.S., it’s the Overton versions that sound like they’re in real time. Don’t get me wrong; Monk on Monk is a fine album, but the arrangements are pretty workmanlike, basically a set of cues so the all-star soloists don’t bump into each other on their way to the blowing spotlight. The players themselves are in good form-pianist Danilo Perez, saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Jimmy Heath, trumpeters Arturo Sandoval and Roy Hargrove-and all manage to sound like themselves, in a Monkish mood. Still, all that mainstream muscle can’t help but lend a conservative feel to the project, as if Monk the college weirdo had been rearranged as the eminently pledgeable big-man-on-jazz-campus.

The liner notes to the Bill Holman Band’s Brilliant Corners give the Hall Overton albums their due (“reflections” of Monk’s “genius”) but suggest that the article in hand is something separate and at least Overton’s equal-“vehicles for the art of the arranger.” Oh dear. Exercising his arranger’s license, Mr. Holman has deliberately chosen to ignore the Monk in Monk and has gone with his own 16-piece bag of tricks: fancy section work, counterpoint and frissons of Bela Bartok. The album, like Mr. Holman’s long career, can be located at the corner of Hollywood studio work and the white symphonic jazz tradition, whose most pretentious avatar, bandleader Stan Kenton, was Mr. Holman’s boss in the 50’s. For a distillation of that tradition, check out Kenton’s 1952 album New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm (Capitol Jazz), which commences with his 10-minute spoken-word prologue-“This is an orchestra!”-including a couple lines on Mr. Holman: “He represents a talent that is discontented with music of the present. He is anxious over the future.”

Brilliant Corners is not a terrible album, just a terrible idea executed with consummate musicianship. And for what it’s worth, it does have a historical pedigree. In 1968, Monk went to Hollywood to record a big-band album with arranger-tenor saxophonist Oliver Nelson, and the result, Monk’s Blues , was probably the worst album of either man’s career.

It’s hard to avoid the maxim that more Monk is less Monk. (The two knockout Latin versions of Thelonious’ music, Danilo Perez’s 1996 PanaMonk and Jerry Gonzalez’s 1989 Rumba Para Monk , generate big-band commotion with just a quartet and quintet, respectively.) Ultimately, even the gold-standard large-ensemble Monk of Hall Overton serves to whet our appetite for Monk in quartet, or in trio, or perhaps most sublimely, all by himself. Happy birthday, Thelonious.