Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Monk's Dream: On First Listening*

All of the previous Monk albums in my collection were growers, though some of a very deceptive variety. I am still waiting for Genius of Modern Music, Vol.1, Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington and Brilliant Corners, after months (and years in one case), to finally grow on me, as I've been faithfully assured they eventually will. And because this is Thelonious Monk I am still convinced it will happen. Until then there's Genius of Modern Music, Vol.2, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk and, now, Monk's Dream to satisfy me. Monk seems to be one of those scant figures who you daren't defame with criticism, a luxury in the jazz world not even reserved for Louis Armstrong. I suppose people admire his singularity and status as a maverick - as do I. The problem is, he rarely translated these particular qualities into the sort of delightful, crowd pleasing ditties that an earlier character like Cab Calloway did effortlessly. I suppose it's easy to not have to be a true showman when there's no one listening.

While Monk's style had not changed a great deal, his group had and for the better. For a supposedly stellar figure of the bop era†, the pianist never seemed to get adequate support from his contemporaries. While Blakey cottoned on to the worthy idea of getting his charges to play in Monk's style, people like Sonny Rollins and Max Roach never seemed to get past that they were backing a bop demigod. On Monk's Dream, he's finally got himself a group that understood that they were playing with a figure of infinite complexity, far beyond the restrictions of one style. It helps, too, that tenorist Charlie Rouse, bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop were well schooled in various orchestras and bands and, crucially, didn't seem the least bit awed in the presence of their boss.

Like Duke Ellington before him, Monk benefits greatly from revisiting his work - a stark contrast from Charlie Mingus who could never seem to make going back more interesting than moving forward. Today, we might see an album like Monk's Dream as little more than cheap filler or, worse still, the capitulation to a major label from an artist seeking to reap the rewards previously denied him. But the truth is Monk thrived on Columbia precisely because he was no longer given carte blanche to indulge. Commercial pressure forced him to tone down the more excessive passages on works like Brilliant Corners in favour of a lighter, more condensed sound. I may not be much of a Monk aficionado but this sell out approach does not seem to affect his work one iota. We'll have to see if it begins to shrink on me in the days and weeks and months ahead.

* I only bought this album yesterday and thought it might be nice to wind down 2008 with some initial thoughts on my latest purchase. I imagine these slap dash observations will be added to in the near future.

† I say supposedly because I've begun to doubt Monk's position as a full-fledged bop performer (as do many other jazz fans and critics). Just as Henry VIII is considered to a vital cog in the Protestant Reformation because his break with the church occurred at roughly the same time as Luther's, Monk just happened to arrive on the scene just as Parker, Gillespie and Powell were hitting their stride. I'd say they coincide but aren't the direct result of each other.

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