Saturday, April 16, 2011

April 16: Thelonious Monk, "Brilliant Corners"

Artist: Thelonious Monk
Song: "Brilliant Corners"
Album: Brilliant Corners
Year: 1957

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Though it happens quite frequently across all genres and decades, referring to an artist or sound as "ahead of its time" has become one of the more over-used phrases in music history.  While in the more modern sense, it is often citing a performer that paved the way for others, in the 1940's and 1950's, there were slight variations on the term that put it in a more negative light.  Yet the idea remained the same, and in at least one case, after years of critical neglect and dismissal, those same people cited the same artist as a true musical genius.  Ironically, the artist in question had not changed their sound or approach at all, and one can argue that the general public had finally "caught up" to his vision.  It is this fact, as well as the uniquely brilliant compositions he recorded throughout his career that places Thelonious Monk into a musical category all his own.  Without question one of, if not the most influential jazz pianist in history, one can see many of Monk's recordings as the absolute definition of a number of the "sub genres" of jazz, and few performers stayed as dedicated to their musical visions as one finds within his catalog.  Due to his massive influence and pioneering approach, nearly every Monk recording can be cited for its importance.  However, to fully appreciate the sheer genius and talent that lived within Thelonious Monk, one need look no further than his winding, fast paced 1957 masterpiece, "Brilliant Corners."

As the title track of his extraordinary 1957 record, "Brilliant Corners" is one of the finest and most complete musical explorations in the Monk catalog, and it also features one of the better groups of musicians that one can find on his studio albums.  Much like a number of the seminal jazz recordings of the era, the line-up on "Brilliant Corners" reads like a "who's who" of jazz giants, and it is led by the saxophone duo of Sonny Rollins and Ernie Henry.  They are joined by trumpet master Clark Terry, and the way in which the trio lock together for the songs' main phrase stands as one of the most upbeat, yet powerful moments in all of jazz history.  The rhythm section of bassist Paul Chambers and drum legend Max Roach fills out the bands' exceptional membership, and the interplay between the almost free-form drumming and the "dancing" sound from Rollins stands as one of the few musical moments that all must experience.  It is this loose, open feeling that defines the composition, as even on the solos, there is a certain relaxed mood across the track, and it is in this aspect that one can fully understand the musicality that lives within the "bop" sound.  While the band members keep the more hard-edged, angular progressions and tone intact, they use "Brilliant Corners" to prove that the bop sound is just as beautiful as any other jazz sub-genre, and that is why one can point to this recording as "the" definition of that style.

However, while one cannot in any way minimize the importance or quality found within the band, there is also no getting past the absolutely superb performance from Thelonious Monk himself, and "Brilliant Corners" is without question one of his finest studio moments.  It is the way in which Monk is clearly conscious of the pitch and power of the rest of the band, and the way in which he adjusts around their sound that sets "Brilliant Corners" aside from the other iconic songs of his catalog, as Monk takes his more typical "quirky" arrangements and pushes them into a vast, soaring celebration of sound.  Whether he is taking the lead or lightly leading the band from behind their instruments, Monk proves his exceptional talents as he plays both parallel and perpendicular to the sounds of the other musicians, showing his uncanny sense of both the dramatic and finesse within his playing.  Constantly switching his own timing, Monk seems to take each of the band members in a different direction, and his own solos are where his more typical sounds can be found.  It is also during Monk's solos that one can hear the unique relationship that he had with his drummers, and with Roach, the two are able to play off one another in a manner unlike any other recording in history.  Both seem to want to expand the arrangement to its fullest, and it is the way in which Thelonious Monk is able to almost make the song itself "breathe" that serves as the final proof of the truly genius nature of "Brilliant Corners."

Truth be told, even the musicians themselves had difficulty with the complexity and demand of Monk's composition, and the final studio version is actually cut from several different takes, all spliced together by Monk himself.  Even with this knowledge in hand, one can listen as carefully as possible, and there is no moment anywhere on "Brilliant Corners" where one can detect a change in the source sound.  Furthermore, the overall mood and energy stays consistent throughout the recording, and with these two realities in mind, one is left to wonder what sort of moments were "left" on the studio floor.  The final product, regardless of its origin, has risen to an iconic status, due to both the complexity of the arrangement, as well as the almost relaxed mood of the musicians that seems to go against the challenge of Monk's song.  This was surely due to both the exceptional level of talent within the musicians, as well as the talents that Thelonious Monk possessed as a band leader, and it is his performance in this area that proves the leader need not retain the spotlight to be effective.  In fact, one can cite "Brilliant Corners" as one of Monk's more subtle performances, as he is able to fade a bit into the background when he is not delivering a brilliant lead part.  Though the song is clearly a hard-bop classic, it puts far more focus on the more melodic side of the genre, and it is this difference that makes Thelonious Monk's 1957 recording, "Brilliant Corners," one of the unrivaled moments of true musical genius.

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