PREVIEW: Birmingham Monkathon (Frontiers Festival June 2-5) + Chasing the Unicorn at the Vortex, June 8

Jeremy Price, Tony Kofi

Hans Koller writes about the mind-cleansing which happens through playing  Thelonious Monk, and about playing the whole songbook in a forthcoming Monkathon in Birmingham, followed by a visit for the project to London:

With my colleagues and friends and students at Birmingham Conservatoire we’re excited to be celebrating Monk’s music, as part of the Frontiers Festival, playing his whole songbook over 4 days, during June 2-5.

Highlights include Jeremy Price‘s fittingly entitled group Ugly Beauty (with Tony Kofi, Liam Noble, Arnie Somogyi and Clark Tracey), and the Beat City Big Band, led by Tom Dunnett, playing new orchestral arrangements of Monk.

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And as a reprise, we’ll transport our group Chasing the Unicorn (François Théberge, Jeff Williams, Percy Pursglove) down to the Vortex in London for Sunday June the 8th, playing a newly conceived all-Monk programme.

o – o – o

Much has been said and written about Thelonious Monk over the years, and I’m thinking, “well you needn’t”… add to it, but there again, sharing in the discourse about his music can sometimes produce a few little clues for orientation in the strange and wonderful land of Monk.

I remember the first time I heard a recording of Monk, visiting an older sister in Hamburg in the late 1980s. She had a boyfriend who was a student of musicology researching Monteverdi or someone like that, and being a typically Teutonic intellectual, he would relax not with any kind of mainstream nonsense but with the finest in modern jazz (pronounced a bit like ‘modern chess’ in the north of Germany), for example with Thelonious Monk’s Live at the Five Spot from 1958.

A bottle of cold Jever in hand (non-Bavarian beer also being a first for me here), he would point out that Roy Haynes is actually playing the tune, not just an open drum solo, and that Monk’s habitual silence a couple of choruses into a Johnny Griffin solo can mean a plethora of things: Monk thinks it’s happening so he doesn’t need to comp, just listening, he’s gone dancing, or to the bar, he’s waiting for a moment to insert something from the tune into the tenor shredding, floating noiselessly like a bird of prey before action. Ah, the old days of beer and vinyl. My never-to-be brother-in-law had to get up from his Sessel and turn the record over even more frequently than descent into the Keller to get more Jever.

Later, in 2003, my sense of direction in the land of Monk was greatly enhanced by meeting, learning from, and working with saxophonist Steve Lacy. There was an improviser of the highest order, a personality imbued with Monkisms (“Stick to the point” / “Lift the bandstand” / “Make the drummer sound good”…), a true sound innovator, and an original, outside-the-box thinker. Lacy, famously knew the entire Monk repertoire by heart before anyone else, worked with Monk’s group in 1960, and was instrumental in opening Monk’s music to both the early avant-garde then and to the consciousness of jazz and new music today.

For me the key always has been to look to bind improvisation and composition together. Lacy talks about the unity of the given and gotten, which necessitates the need to come up with a specific improvisational lexicon (to borrow a word from George Lewis) for each individual tune, hidden in the tune itself. This sounds daunting but gradually turns out to be very comforting as you have much more than just, say, a bunch of chords to play with. And, somewhat paradoxically, you can play less that way.

Almost all of his tunes are minimalist in the sense that the material is distilled to its essence, even a busy tune like Skippy: after a while you can hear that the line is basically simple voice-leading, just with the hippest decoration imaginable. Trinkle tinkle is another great example of this approach.

In Evidence, Monk actually does dispense with all decoration, and just gives us the voice-leading. But no ordinary voice-leading: Monk uses 11 of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale and sprinkles these seemingly freely, knowingly, sparingly (and actually symmetrically, not unlike someone like Anton Webern) over the form.

Almost all of his tunes are maximalist in the sense that the universe starts expanding as soon as you start playing his music. This is because there are hardly any ordinary repetitions. He tinkers with the phrasing at key moments (for example first time bar and third time bar are almost always slightly different) so you never feel claustrophobic. Sometimes he likes to defy the cliché of new material in the bridge, like in Criss Cross, or Gallop’s Gallop, instead keeping going with developing a motif from the first section. In Epistrophy the phrases are placed as if in reflection to one another so the normal 32 bar length becomes the hippest form you’ve ever heard.

Lacy summed all this up eloquently:

“Monk represents the defense of a supreme equilibrium of rhythmic values and harmonic proportions”.

o – o – o

This is our first Monkathon. I’ve been training for it like a frightened but keen novice – despite learning and listening to his music on and off for over 25 years. With Monk you have to start all over again, almost every day, re-learning to place, re-place, and shift and re-shift each note like a physical object in space and time. That’s why trying to learn his tunes can feel like moving house for the umpteenth time but it also reveals a rare chance to investigate and re-define our habitat, and it reveals the beauty of getting rid of old (dys-)functionalities, and possessions that have slowed us down for too long, stuff we didn’t even know we still had. You hear this cleansing of the mind in his music, and don’t we all long for a bit of that?


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1 reply »

  1. A suggestion for Clark Tracey: please would you look into the feasibility of putting out a CD of the excellent album on which you played in 1982 (Spectrum – Tribute to Monk) as I wore out my vinyl LP long ago.

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