Genius Of Modern Music


Make sure you tune in Sunday to WKCR for 24 hours of Thelonious Monk, celebrating his birthday. That means it starts at midnight.

Seeing Patrick Jarenwattananon describe Monk’s music got me thinking. It’s a common description, but I never found his music weird, which perhaps means that I’m weird. Rather, to me Monk, like a lot of the greats, had a genius for the fundamental idea and execution. What sounds weird to people is, I think, the lack of superfluous information they have been conditioned to hear in music in general.

This is what I mean: the basic elements of music (in the broad mainstream of pop, jazz and classical musics of all styles) are harmony, melody and rhythm. And what those are, generally, are the architectural structure of the music, the lead line that proclaims a sense of meaning and purpose, and the way the music both marks and subdivides the passage of time. As music has gone along through the centuries, there has been an accumulation of ideas about how all these three elements can be created and put together, the result being an increase in both sophistication and artifice, a way to do the thing that becomes increasingly gestural and solipsistic (not necessarily bad qualities in music). Monk puts together these three elements, but he does so with so little artifice that, compared to Gershwin or Ellington, he seems ‘weird’ in contrast!

Monk’s music is so basic that his melodies are themselves mostly arpeggiations of his harmonies, which are themselves the most ‘artificial’ part of his sound. He used the extended chords of the Be-Boppers, but kept a lean and dry sound, and did not himself play Be-Bop. Rather, he swung like mad. Monk had some of the strongest swing feel ever. That was how he subdivided time, and the swing is in his melodies (perhaps Ornette’s Harmolodics are really what Monk was doing all along?). He subdivided time in his melodies like Stravinsky, taking some bit that had a four-square beat pattern and repeating part of it as offset from the normal pulse, so that the tune seemed to overspill the edges of the song structure. It’s absolutely sophisticated and also incredibly basic.

That’s why Monk is so hard to play well if you’re not Monk. It’s hard to either get away from or add to the atomic nucleus of his logical structure and still sound like you’re working with the same material. It’s hard not to sound like a poor imitation of the man. The best Monk interpreters were Charlie Rouse, heard here in the quartet, playing “Epistrophy:”

And Steve Lacy on “Shuffle Boil:”

Both Rouse and Lacy were deep into the intervallic possibilities of the saxophone, and intervals are the phonemes of Monk, the spaces that make up his harmonies, his melodies, and his time. The interval gets the pitch from one part of the chord/melody to another, and the interval between one sound and the next is a notch in the timeline. Rouse swung hard, Lacy preferred a rubato style, but both fit into Monk’s ideas beautifully. They stuck with the basics.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.