Monk: The Work

Miles OkazakiWork (self-released, 2018)

From Kevin Whitehead’s book, New Dutch Swing, regarding Thelonious Monk’s “deliberate lack of polish”:

What some heard as fumbling, thick fingers crushing so many adjacent notes, Misha [Mengelberg] heard simply as a liberal use of minor seconds. Monk in a way took diatonic harmony to its extreme, hiding every basic triad in an obfuscatory thicket.

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Early on, I encountered the assertion that Monk’s hand size made him imprecise on the keys, and that his genius was to turn those would-be mistakes into stunning special harmonies. Over the years, I’ve learned that idea is more or less debunked. Monk was purposefully crafting something that was his. He was innovating.

So, when someone plays Monk on an instrument other than piano — a non-chordal instrument like a saxophone, or even a guitar, where those piano chords might be challenging to replicate — what happens then? It seems to me that you would get a very personal reading.

First, it would be Monk heard through the layer of translation from piano to a different instrument. But more than that, the solo aspect would provide a “purer” version of that musician’s take on the material. Broccoli tastes different to you than it does to me. I can say this confidently because other people seem to actually enjoy the stuff. Maybe Monk sounds different to you than it does to me — or, more clinically, maybe the details that stand out to your ear aren’t the same ones that stand out to me.

These ideas linger in my head when I listen to Miles Okazaki’s Work, a six-volume collection of all of Monk’s compositions performed on solo guitar. Certainly, Okazaki gives some songs novel treatments. But I like to think that underneath it all, there’s a chance to peek into a musician’s brain for a “clean” read of what Monk could sound like — the Monk that Okazaki hears.

That feeling is particularly strong on Work because of the rules Okazaki set for himself. No funny time signatures (every song was originally in common time, it turns out). True, recognizable readings of the melodies. One guitar for the entire project, with one amplifier and no effects. There was leeway to experiment, but the goal was to present Monk as Monk, keeping that translation layer thin.

The familiarity of Monk’s songbook gives any jazz musician a preset level of expertise, much like the tens of thousands of pitches thrown by a baseball player by the time he makes the Major Leagues. Okazaki started out knowing how to play around with these tunes. The challenge was how to present them as a whole, and how to vary them enough to create a compelling 70-track album. I’m especially grateful for Okazaki’s liner notes, which detail the evolution of the project and include track-by-track comments that nod to musicians and recordings that inspired him. 

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Of course, Okazaki is a modern artist full of tricks and angles. He’s part of the regular crowd on the Pi Recordings label. So these aren’t meant to be pristine, sober readings of Monk. Some, like “Think of One,” dabble and stray as Okazaki’s improvisation progresses. Others, like “Misterioso,” dive down for a new, undiscovered perspective. (“Despite the way it sounds, the performance is in common time the whole way through,” he writes in the liners.)

 
Monk’s Mood” opens with some dissonant dabbling that feels out the chords and melody of the song. That’s normal for any solo jazz piece, I suppose, but there’s a closeness to the homebrewed recording, as if you’re in the workshop watching Okazaki think his way through the piece, decoding its mathematics and deciding which elements to wring out. On other tracks, the sound is almost tactile — close enough to feel the delicious tension on the strings as he chops his way through “Bright Mississippi.”

 
I’m skipping around Work rather than powering through all the tracks in sequence. I’m surprised at the sheer number of Monk songs that I’ve never heard of. I can’t point to specific revelations about any given composition yet, but it’s fun hearing Okazaki pick the tunes apart. There are more lessons to be found in there.

One last thing. Yes, you can listen to the entire album for free on Bandcamp. But please consider purchasing it, at the fair price Okazaki is asking. Musicians should be compensated for projects like this — after all, it was work.

What Just Happened

Two sources of inspiration for this blog are Wil Wheaton dot net and Real Life Comics, partly because both are so long-running. Both also slowed as they aged, in terms of posting frequency. Wheaton recently took a month off. Real Life Comics went away for four years before reviving for a spell in 2018-19.

There’s no rule that says I have to explain the hiatus that this blog took between June and December, but why not. It’s nothing crisis-level. No depression or family tragedy, nothing like that.

Mostly, it was the day job. I call it that, flippantly, but in reality I have a grown-up career that I enjoy devoting time to. A few consecutive busy months left me allotting less time for music in general — not only seeing shows, but also taking time to seriously listen and think about music.

There’s also the kids. They’re teenagers, and I don’t want to miss what little time I have left with them, especially with the oldest having reached college age.

Then there’s the writing itself. Originally, this blog (and its stick-figure predecessor, which still survives) was an outlet for a kind of writing I wasn’t able to do at work. Oddly, the writing at my current job uses the same mental muscles as the blog — not in terms of style or subject but in terms of process. At the end of a writing-heavy day, I find I’m less inclined to sit down and go through the same motions for my hobby. That’s an issue I’ll have to wrestle with.

And of course, there’s inertia. Once I got out of the habit of blogging and going to shows, it was easy to stay out.

Why come back, then? First, the blog is a point of pride, even though I don’t really tell anyone about it. I like seeing the long history of posts. And despite what I said about writing, those muscles could use the exercise.

But secondly, I got inspired. Real Life Comics came back.

Real Life is a web comic that started in 2000, based loosely on Greg Dean’s real life, plus some liberties such as a holodeck and wormhole-style teleportation. After Greg and his wife had a child (in the comic, but in real life, too), the posting frequency petered out until it finally stopped in 2015. Understandable. I’ve been there. I don’t know why I kept checking the site, but I did, and bam — in late 2018, I discovered that the strip had started up again and had run a couple of months’ worth of steady updates.

Real Life Comics seems to have fallen back into hiatus, but … if he can revive his work for at least a little while, I can do it too, right?