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.

Von Schlippenbach Swings

Alexander von SchlippenbachJazz Now! Live At Theater Gütersloh (European Jazz Legends, 2016)

avonschl-nowAlexander von Schlippenbach is one of the holes in my jazz education. I’ve heard his music, including the Globe Unity Orchestra, his colossal improvising unit of the ’70s. But I’ve never explored his music very deeply.

I’m also aware that he recorded Monk’s entire catalogue. Like many of the great European improvisers, he traces his musical roots back to the swing and bebop of old.

Still, when I grabbed this quartet concert album on a whim, it was surprising to hear how “straight” most of the playing is, from the romantic strains of Herbie Nichols’ “12 Bars” to the thrilling pace of “Miss Ann,” with nice solos from bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall floors it and drummer Heinrich Köbberling.

It wasn’t an unpleasant surprise — more the kind that makes you smile slowly at first, then more and more broadly until you’re grinning.

You do get generous doses of the outside jazz that I was expecting, mostly in the form of Von Schippenbach’s own compositions. “Tropi” features a kind of broken swing, with a theme that’s traceable but not a simple 4/4; it then dives straight into group improvising, in a fast post-bop vein.

 
Von Schlippenbach’s “The Bells of St. K” and the opening of Monk’s “Epistrophy” both feature free improvisation, with angular, spiky bass clarinet. (Side note: The band is a traditional quartet with the bass clarinet as the only horn. It’s novel and a little Dolphy-esque.) Von Schlippenbach’s solo on “Epistrophy” is a tasty hybrid of free and straight playing.

The Herbie Nichols tunes are a treat — and it’s kind of sad that I’m still taken by surprise when his name comes up on a song credit. (Nichols was a contemporary of Monk’s whose music isn’t as well cemented in the public consciousness.) “The Gig” comes across as a complex swing — it’s got an easy rhythm but a tangled melody where Mahall gets to show off some dexterity.

One detail I left out: The concert is recent, recorded in March 2015. That’s what inspired me to listen in the first place. There’s a wealth of material from these great improvisers — Destination: Out sells quite a bit, from the old FMP catalogue — but it’s good to also check out what musicians like von Schlippenbach are doing in the here-and-now. The deep knowledge of the Monk-era songbook, mixed with that Euro-improv pioneering spirit, all wrapped up in the comfortable hands of age and experience — it adds up to some wonderful results.

Iyer Alone

Vijay IyerSolo (ACT, 2010)

As much as critics raved about it, the inclusion of “Human Nature” on Vijay Iyer’s solo piano album gave me pause.

Look, I understand people’s love for Michael Jackson, and I can respect it — but only when we’re talking about the driven, funky Michael Jackson, not the diluted lite-rock version.

The track comes up first on Solo, and possibly because I don’t know the song, I didn’t recognize what was happening. (I’ll sometimes listen to an album “blind” at first, without consulting the track list.) I heard a lyrical, pretty piece — very ECM-like — with a recognizably repeating bassline and a rustling, shifting feeling. A peaceful air, but busy with lots of little notes, lost of activity.

All right, it’s pretty good. And then the chorus kicked in. I’d been tricked into actually liking the song.

In Iyer’s earlier work, I’d focused on the steely modernity. Solo presents a more lyrical side, forcing you to concentrate more on the details of Iyer’s playing. I don’t want to call the music new-agey, because I tend to use that term as an insult. But it’s got a contemplative melodic sense, while still sometimes peppering the ears with 32nd-note teletype raindrops.

About half of the album is covers, including a couple of slowly savored Duke Ellington pieces. When it comes to Iyer’s own compositions, you get more of that serious, lyrical bent, where the music hovers and opens up space for thinking.

But Iyer still has that stormy, forceful style at his beck and call. The closing “One for Blount” (a Sun Ra nod) is one example. So is “Epistrophy,” a particularly interesting cover that gets reflected in a cracked mirror, with clumps of Monkian chords distorted and flung about. The theme is immediately familiar even though it comes to your ears in shards. “Autoscopy” includes some scattery fast work but gives way to a flowing, rainy-day cascading, used as backdrop for a slower melody.