Sunday, September 6, 2009

September 6: Thelonious Monk, "Monk's Dream"

Artist: Thelonious Monk
Album: Monk's Dream
Year: 1962
Label: Columbia

Often times, it takes the general public awhile to catch up with certain artists and realize the genius behind the music in question. Throughout the history of music, this has rarely been more true than in the case of Thelonious Monk. Certainly one of the greatest jazz pianists in history, Monk was always far ahead of his time, pushing into uncharted musical territory, as well as often playing sounds and styles that had been considered "dead" for years. Regardless of what the critics thought and said, Monk stuck to his ideals, and his recorded catalog is one of the most amazing of any artist in history. With his constant striving for new musical pastures, he was able to attract and form some of the most memorable quartets and quintets in history, and the albums produced by these groups are nothing short of stunning. Spending time with four of the most influential record labels throughout his career, one can see his time with each label as having a very distinct sound when compared to his work on other labels. From his early work with Blue Note to his amazingly complex work at Riverside Records, few musicians have as large and diverse a recorded catalog as Monk. While there are certainly no "bad" recordings of Monk, there are a handful of his albums that can make a case as his finest work. In 1962, Monk entered the studio to record his first album for Columbia Records, and after assembling one of his finest musical units, he recorded his most popular album, and easily one one the most amazing jazz records ever, Monk's Dream.

One of the more interesting aspects of Monk's Dream is the fact that all but one of the songs had been previously recorded by Monk. Aside from "Bright Mississippi," every song on the album can be found elsewhere in the Monk catalog, yet it is on Monk's Dream where one will find the best version of the song, both sonically and musically. One of the main reasons why Monk's Dream sounds so good is undoubtedly the presence of legendary producer, Teo Macero. Having filled the same roll for Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue and Dave Brubek's Time Out, Macero's discography is easily one of the most impressive in jazz history. Throughout Monk's Dream, while the compositions are extremely complex and tight, Macero ensures that each instrument has plenty of space, and the instruments avoid a chaotic clash of sound. The complexity of the compositions on the album is like none other, and there is rarely any "open space" on the songs, this making it a very strict and precise recording process. This is where the interplay between the musicians becomes key, as the other three members of Monk's quartet are so in tune with Monk's musical mind that they are each able to find small pockets in which they inject perfectly timed, sensational musical fills. This ability serves as a testament not only to the top notch talent of the band members, but also to the uncanny way in which the four musicians interact with one another in an almost telepathic sense.

One of the most amazing aspects to the music of Thelonious Monk is his ability to step back and let the other musicians take the spotlight on his own compositions. This humility makes his songs all the better, and it is perhaps no more apparent than the amazing saxophone work found on the song, "Bye-Ya." For this session, his first with Columbia Records, Monk assembled one of his finest quartets, and the results are some of the most amazing music he ever released. Perhaps the most prominent sound on Monk's Dream aside from Monk himself is tenor saxophonist, Charlie Rouse. Having honed his skills in the bands of Billy Eckstine and Duke Ellington among others, Rouse is truly sensational as he and Monk play brilliantly off of one another. The interplay between the two is perhaps no more formal and fantastic than on the song, "Bolivar Blues." Playing with everyone from Bud Powell to Sun Ra, bassist John Ore was a perfect fit, as he helped Monk to push further into his non-traditional sounds and styles. With more than one hundred albums to his name, drummer Frankie Dunlop stands as one of the most influential jazz drummers in history. Having played on albums for Charles Mingus and Sunny Rollins among a host of others, his recorded style is also a great fit for Monk in terms of diversity. Throughout all of Monk's Dream, it is apparent that there is a very special musical chemistry between the musicians, and Monk's ability to be outside of the spotlight enables the album to rise to the greatest ever recorded.

Obviously, at the center of each of the amazing songs on Monk's Dream is the man himself, the unmatched Thelonious Monk. By far one of the most influential and original pianists in history, Monk is often credited as one of the key founders of the "bop" style of jazz, and many of his compositions have become true jazz standards. Setting himself apart from his peers, Monk took a far more aggressive approach to his playing, hitting the keys harder than others, and making special note of abrubt moments of silence, as well as musical hesitations and amazing melodic twists. The unorthodox harmonies and the sheer drama that comes across in his playing serves as further testament to the true genius that lived within Thelonious Monk. Along with the six quartet tracks on Monk's Dream, there are also two solo pieces, "Just A Gigolo" and "Body And Soul." On these two pieces, the true genius of Monk becomes apparent, as he is just as innovative and exploratory as he is with his backing band, and this serves as the final proof of his commitment to his own, unique musical approach. Aside from his musical accomplishments, Thelonious Monk also holds the distinction of being one of only four jazz musicians to be featured on the cover of Time magazine (Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Duke Ellington being the other three).

One simply cannot discuss the greatest and most important figures in jazz music without allotting ample time to discuss Thelonious Monk. Far and away one of the genre's most original and creative minds, Monk constantly pushed boundaries, never settling with sounds and styles he had already explored. As a result, though he is considered one of the founders of "bop," he gradually drifted away from the style and began to deeply explore countless other musical approaches. Creating extremely complex and tightly packed musical compositions, there are truly few artists with the sheer musical vision of Monk. His compositions pushed every musician who played alongside him to play at their own best, and many musicians cite their time with Monk as the height of their musical careers. After leaving Riverside Records for Columbia Records, Monk formally assembled the quartet that he had already been playing with for a few years. This quartet separates themselves from Monk's other groupings in that the unspoken musical understanding between the musicians is truly uncanny. All four players are clearly locked in and the manner with which they are almost able to read one anothers' musical thoughts is often nothing short of stunning. The results of this unparalleled musical interaction is captured on Thelonious Monk's 1962 release, Monk's Dream, and the album is so phenomenal and unique that it is well beyond an essential for every music collection.

Standout tracks: "Monk's Dream," "Bright Mississippi," and "Just A Gigolo."

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