The annual Monkathon – all of Thelonious’ compositions played in one Birmingham-wide festival – was masterminded by Birmingham Conservatoire in 2014. This year’s (12-20 June), in the centenary year of Monk’s birth, is likely to be even more special. HANS KOLLER looks back at his personal involvement with Monkathon – and with the music of Monk.
A few years ago I sent a text message to alto saxophonist Martin Speake asking if he was up for a little one-off play through some Monk tunes, with me on valve trombone/euphonium, in homage to the Steve Lacy/Roswell Rudd Schooldays band that played Monk tunes exclusively – without a pianist.
This proved to be a fateful move – I have since shelved most of my other musical and non-musical ambitions (e.g. to understand Ornette’s harmolodics; learn the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues; start doing some D.I.Y in the flat; pass the Life In Britain test; learn the difference between passé composé and imperfait; appreciate our upstairs neighbours’ walking style, etc.) – since Martin has set us on a mission of galactic proportions to understand Monk’s music intellectually and instinctively. The whole lot.
Oh my God, that takes time. Early on in the process, bassist Calum Gourlay joined us, bringing much-needed rooted-ness, an amazing sense of groove, as well as his legendary ‘melody-button’: Monk is not really chord-scale relationship, rather melody in time, sometimes at the same time, sometimes over time, sometimes across time. But always melody: go on, press the melody button. The drummers James Maddren and Jeff Williams each offer their own art to the music, and to all that left out by Monk… Being in Thelonious (the band) has been a daunting yet uplifting journey so far.
For one week in June, we’ve invited New York guitarist Steve Cardenas to join us. Steve is the transcriber of the Monk fake book that everybody uses these days. For a while we as a band got together pretty much weekly, going over the stuff, listening to the records together, learning bits of the recordings here and there, thinking we’ll catch out Steve with his fancy book.
But we haven’t. Above all, listening to Steve play Monk’s music with the late, great Paul Motian made us want to contact him. Happily, Steve thinks we are perfectly normal, is willing to play with us, and agreed to cycle to the gigs (good for the environment, and for our budget!) if I explain to him Monk’s use of both 7ths on the Cmin chord in the bridge of Ruby, My Dear. (I think I know the answer, or at least one answer: It’s a G7b13 played at the same time as its tonic Cmin7). That bit about Steve cycling isn’t really true but it could be, who knows?
Of course, much has been said and written about Thelonious Monk over the years, and I’m thinking, well you needn’t add to it, but then 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 descend 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 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 sums all this up eloquently: “Monk represents the defence of a supreme equilibrium of rhythmic values and harmonic proportions”.
– Thelonious (Martin Speake, Hans Koller, Calum Gourlay, James Maddren) with Steve Cardenas will play the CBSO Centre Birmingham on Thursday 15 June, the Vortex on Friday 16 June, and record a new album for the Birmingham-based label Stoney Lane Records on Saturday 17 June.
– Other Monkathon events include Professor François Théberge working with a group of his Paris Conservatoire students and pianist Liam Noble; Arnie Somogyi’s Jump Monk and a keynote presentation by Monk scholar and biographer Robin Kelley.
– Monkathon is masterminded from Birmingham Conservatoire but is notable as a collaborative effort with various promoters around the city, including Birmingham Jazz, Jazzlines and Jazz At The Spotted Dog.