Its not good for reviewers to engage in excessive hyperbole, but when it comes to Thelonious Monk’s “Genius of Modern Music”, we’re going to throw all restraint out the window and just come out and say that this is quite possibly the most important LP in jazz history. Keep in mind that the salient works by Armstrong, Ellington and Parker went down before the arrival of the LP, so that takes them out of the competition, but Monk’s first shot at a major label release came along just as the LP format was finally being given to jazz artists. “Genius of Modern Music” did not make a strong impact at first, many critics and jazz fans were dismissive of Monk’s odd approach, while many others didn’t even notice this album came out at all. But, it was different with many of the musicians, they heard what Monk was doing and they were interested, and over the decades, many more musicians would turn to his very personal take on what jazz could be to find their own inspiration. To this day, from Matthew Shipp to Vijay Iyer and everyone else as well, Monk remains one of the strongest influences on modern jazz piano and composition.
Despite his exaggerated reputation, Monk was not a naïve iconoclast, throughout “Genius of Modern Music”, you can hear Monk’s roots in the stride piano he grew up on, as well as the innovations of the young be-bop players of his day, but somehow Monk transforms everything into such an assertive personal statement, that there is no way for anyone to imitate him, try as they often do. The number one salient feature of Monk’s playing is his bizarre rhythms. Somehow he juxtaposes figures and introduces abrupt changes that challenge our perception, you find yourself wondering, “did I hear that right?” Secondly, his harmonic language was quite dissonant for the time, and although such dissonance has become more common in modern jazz, Monk still maintains a language that is unmistakably his. Finally, there is a mischievous humor to Monk’s music, a playfulness that slips in a crude joke when your attention might be slipping. He’s the favored uncle in the family, although no one is quite sure why.
This is a power packed line up of songs, many of these tunes went on to be classics, and are still played today, particularly “Round bout Midnight” and “Well, You Needn’t”, but no matter who plays them, they will not sound like the versions on here.