Between 1989 and 1995, Concord Records produced 42 solo piano recitals, all recorded in Maybeck Recital Hall in Berkeley in California. Each recital featured a different jazz pianist; the series eventually consisted of 42 CDs. The entire series is now available on streaming services…so LJN invited pianist Liam Noble to reflect on the series, and also on the art of the solo piano recital.
This article, the second of four, considers the “trapdoors and broken staircases“ to be encountered in Monk’s “Round Midnight”, as played by six different pianists in the Maybeck series:
Not yet a subscriber of our Wednesday Breakfast Headlines?
Join the mailing list for a weekly roundup of Jazz News.
Some tunes are made for the piano, and I can prove it. “Body And Soul”, the second most popular choice in these recitals, is in D flat major, which means there’s a lot of black notes: a combination of black and white notes sits nicely under the hands and has a dark, melancholy quality.
The most popular tune, “’Round Midnight”, is in E flat minor and has the same characteristics. Six out of the forty two recordings here include a version of it. Unlike “Body And Soul”, which comes from a long tradition of jazz ballads, for me “’Round Midnight” is a singular and peculiar piece. It is, even within Thelonious Monk’s work, its own tradition.
When I was at college, we all knew the Miles Davis version with its smoothed out chords, melancholic ballad tempo (note: having listened to the first ever recording by Cootie Williams in 1944, I can see Miles was basing his own recording on that one). Monk’s own solo version of this tune (my favourite) from 1954 is more like a Hitchcock soundtrack. It’s creepy, like Fats Waller in a haunted house . It has its roots in stride piano, but the angles stick out like broken bones, full of anguished changes of key and harmonic lurches. Whilst the A section has very defined melodic sweeps, it’s not what you’d call…singable. In the bridge, the tune seems to step cautiously from note to note whilst the chords seem to continually change their minds about where to go next. It’s a piece that seems laden with trapdoors and broken staircases.
Oh, and there’s an introduction and coda, both of which are optional but which might register for bonus points with the Jazz Police should they be included (and played, it goes without saying…..”correctly”).
Because there’s a kind of scholarly aspect to this piece too. Learning the “original” changes and investigating the possible paths and permutations they unveil is one thing, but to extrapolate that harmonic angst into a more contemporary language is risky work.
- Jim McNeely’s version includes the intro, and his harmonisations are tasteful and light, updating the chord sequence to a kind of post-Bill Evans modality that only unsettle at the very edges of the image. He plays the sequence pretty straight, doubling up the feel with nimble lines that emphasise agility and flying around its dog leg bends without so much as touching the walls. I can hear the big band arranger in him emphasising clarity over confusion, which gives it a different kind of beauty…there’s something of the “Everest” mentality here, a thing to be conquered because it’s there.
- Denny Zeitlin is in some ways in a similar territory, but he opts for a more colourful start: this harmony is startlingly beautiful, quietly rendered and with its own strange disquiet, and carefully arranged. This is a recomposition…at first it feels like he could go anywhere with it, plucked strings against single lines seeming to abandon the chords completely before he eases into a medium tempo swing. As with McNeely’s reading, there’s a feeling that you have to prove your stripes with these changes, or that perhaps the audience want to see you do it.
- Of these more “analytical” versions of the song, Richie Beirach’s is the most unhinged, and dangerous. Starting, like Zeitlin, with some quiet colours, he quickly glissandos into expressionistic contrasts of texture: it feels very spontaneous, as if he’s embellishing a classic fairytale with every device he can find, making it up as he goes along. The solo section steams along at a double tempo, but it’s brought to a sudden halt with a return to softer textures….like Bud Powell, he is prone to interrupting them with violent outbursts or cinematic abstractions. It’s one of the most improvised renditions in the whole series. That last chord….he jokes, burns and sooths in equal measure, but without settling into any one mood for long enough that we get comfortable. His way through the haunted house is running a rollercoaster through it.
- Walter Norris, associated with the first recording of Ornette Coleman, almost feels like he owns the place by contrast. It’s a broad, relaxed reading, and he ambles about, almost absent minded at times, letting his feet take him where they will. There are some gentle eccentricities in harmony, but they feel “arrived at”, as if he encountered them rather than built them himself: the tune eases in and out of extended and orthodox harmonies, letting the turn of phrase carry the weight. At nine and a half minutes, Norris takes his time, improvising in slow undulations rather than opting for the burn up, some truly Rachmaninoff-esque flourishes almost threatening to abandon the form before returning eventually to it. As with all my favourite players, it’s the touch that carries it: the voicings are resolutely old, but the lines duck and dive in strange ways around them.
- James Williams doesn’t sound the least freaked out by the gravity of this tune and its history: he plays it as if all tunes were written this way, almost carefree, there’s the almost obligatory second head with some darker chords…but there’s something church-like going on. This way of playing colla voce is always grooving too, and at just over four minutes he doesn’t overcook it. And the last section almost settles into some kind of inspired Gospel apotheosis, tantalisingly offered and then taken away. There’s that touch again….something that unifies the whole performance: Williams really hangs on to the mood and, he gives us only one statement of the tune and then out, there’s a world of ideas and originality and, above all, authenticity in what he does in these four short minutes.
- But, unsurprisingly (to me), I was almost disappointed to side with my odds-on favourite: Hank Jones plays this tune like he wrote it. Jones was already 29 years old when Monk recorded this on his first album. There are references to both the Monk and Miles arrangements, but whatever he plays just sounds so right, is so impeccably judged and balanced, that he almost doesn’t need to do anything. Tiny variations in voicing, placement and colour just seem to jump out…at times the lead line sounds almost quieter than the accompaniment and yet draws your ear straight to it. And what lines they are, criss-crossed with nothing more than the chords that Monk wrote himself dropped into the groove with uncanny precision. It’s as if he trusts the pure quality of melodic invention to get him through. It’s just a house, right, haunted yes, but nothing to be afraid of…especially if you have these kind of magical powers. Jones, for me, defines the mystery of music: that when you try and decipher its ingredients, there’s nothing but the stuff you already know.
“’Round Midnight” is a tune that sits at a crossroads, points in many directions from the burn-up to the hotel lounge, expressionist nightmare to abstract exercise, and the piano is perfectly placed to sweep across I doubt I’ll ever get tired of playing it or hearing it. In each of these recorded performances, we know what’s coming, we’ve got the track listing….but those audiences would have felt, all over again, that mix of anticipation and nostalgia as the first strains of Monk’s weird masterpiece crept out into the air.
Buy Liam Noble’s solo piano album A Room Somewhere (Which includes Round Midnight)