10 Tracks I Can't Do Without

10 Tracks by Thelonious Monk I can’t do without…by Jonathan Gee

In our series in which musicians do a “deep dive” into the music of their inspirations, pianist Jonathan Gee writes about ten of his favourite tracks by Thelonious Monk:

  1. Skippy from Genius of Modern Music Vol 2

Starting with his Blue Note period of the late 40s, my first choice is this composition written for his sister-in-law. This glorious tune is based on Tea for Two: Monk underpinned the tune with his trademark 2-5 chromatic harmony then used that harmony to build a new melody. I particularly like the second eight. The tune has a silent movie caper vibe that carries you along and the horn players sound like they are serenely riding an almost out of control horse. Check Jason Moran’s Skitter In for a modern take on this space.

  1. Criss Cross from Milt Jackson and The Thelonious Monk Quintet

Yet another conceptually unique composition from that era (there were many), very cinematic. I think the chord of the fourth bar is one of my favourite “blues chord 4 harmony” moments in jazz. I love hearing Monk with Milt Jackson; this early version has an eight-bar bridge, which in later versions became a six bar, dropping bars 7 and 8 of the bridge, which are actually favourites of mine in this piece.

I have always thought this a great precursor of Wayne Shorter’s tune Pinnochio. Also, Kenny Kirkland recorded an amazing version in the 90s.

  1. Brilliant Corners from Brilliant Corners

This is my favourite-sounding Monk album because in some way all the musicians sound infused with Monk. Monk always taught his musicians to solo by playing off the melody and here Sonny Rollins and Ernie Henry are doing just that. They have totally internalised it and are also improvising with their pure sounds. I think this is the result of having had a few years of Monk recordings to listen to, and also they spent many hours at Monk’s home studying this music. Max Roach is also so musically Monk. This is another unique composition and yet another deep melody. The whole album is awesome…

4. Trinkle Tinkle from Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane

A remarkable tune, it sounds like a melody for drums (first two bars definitely snare). Coltrane is soloing in his sheets of sound concept and the tune sounds like a sheets of sound melody. It is a very live studio sound which I think is because this band were playing every night at the Five Spot and that energy is in the recording. Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware lay down a deep, warm groove. Check the juxtaposition of Trane soloing against Monk comping the melody.

  1. Ruby My Dear from Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane

Another incredible melody. The way Monk and Trane play the melody together, and the actual phrasing itself, is very, very musically hip, yet also so warm. Monk always wanted to write hits in the tradition of Fats Waller, James P Johnson and Duke Ellington. In fact his most well known tune, Round Midnight, was actually his first registered work, but was logged under the title ‘I need you so’. It was written with a different lyric as a song, not an instrumental. So he wanted to write memorable songs/melodies from the beginning and Ruby My Dear is a perfect example of this.

  1. Light Blue from Thelonious In Action Live at The Five Spot

A few months before Monk started his first residency there, the Five Spot had become the hang firstly for the Beat poets and abstract expressionists, and then, following the residency of Cecil Taylor, the hip jazz musicians. Monk was rightly seen as covering all these bases, reminiscent of turn-of-the-century Paris and Vienna, and 20s Harlem – a total NYC moment with Monk as the cultural Don. This quartet was the lineup of his second stint at Five Spot: Johnny Griffin, Roy Haynes and Ahmed Abdul-Malik. This blues/ballad is a masterpiece infused with the blues, but not a formal blues. The phrasing is great; just one example, the emphasis on the phrase on beats one and two of the first bar when the sax comes in, compared with the phrase on beats three and four…

7. Evidence from Thelonious in Action Live at The Five Spot

This composition is based on the harmony of Just me Just You, with this incredible, almost tone row melody casting a superimposed harmonic and rhythmic concept on top. Griffin connects with the fun and humour in Monk. Sometimes Monk would give us the welcoming melody on top and the obscure harmony underneath, but here he does the reverse and creates the space for one of the supreme tenor solos in jazz.

8. Coming On The Hudson from Thelonious in Action

This is a river song. Monk’s supporter Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter bought a house on the Jersey side of the Hudson river, and when Monk first visited he wrote this piece. It is yet another unique expression of his art. We the listener are just sitting watching the river and its life – the three and a half bar bridge breathes like a river – and we get a clear expression, and another great Monk tune to listen to and play (lucky us). Roy Haynes is as awesome as ever, I love that almost dance move-like piano solo phrase that starts on beat 4 of bar 2 on some of the A sections.

  1. Crepuscule with Nellie from The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall

From the Town Hall Concert of 1959, this beautiful through composed blues ballad written as a tone poem for his wife – his one tune that had no improvising. The short fanfare at the end of bar 2 and the downward swoop in bar 5 are perfect Monk language moments. The orchestration was Monk’s ideas realised by Hal Overton, and played with real warm tenderness by the musicians; great instrumentation with french horn, tuba, trombone and baritone sax underpinning.

  1. Little Rootie Tootie from The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall

This is an incredible, playful song written for his son with a remarkable 3 screeching chords motif, representing a train whistle, at the end of each A section and particularly in the intro. Then there’s the incredible sound of the band playing Monk’s solo from the 1954 trio version in unison – raucous, eh? Pepper Adams‘ solo is awesome. I really enjoyed playing Charles Tolliver’s transcription with Charles and the Monk Liberation Front at the London Jazz Festival in 2017.

LINK: Jonathan Gee’s website

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