THELONIOUS MONK — Underground (review)

THELONIOUS MONK — Underground album cover Album · 1968 · Bop Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
The Loneliest Monk On This Bi-Polar Sphere

I wasn’t trying to create something that would be hard to play. I just composed music that fit with how I was thinking. I knew musicians would dig it, because it sounded good. I didn’t want to play the way I’d heard music played all my life. I got tired of hearing that. I wanted to hear something else, something better. In fact, I wanted to play differently. I had a different conception of rhythm section, and all that.(Thelonious Monk 1965)

It stands to reason that the closer we try to approach any subject the greater the likelihood we may start confusing the particular with the general. Monk is a good case in point as most of the academic research conducted since his death from a stroke in 1982 has been clumsily filtered by the romantics in the interim. Ask yourself which you would rather explore: the warm, humorous, devoted and loving family man, a struggling black musician in a racist society respected and admired as pivotal in the painful birth throes of be-bop or: the maverick eccentric madman who danced a version of ring-shout on stage, was hospitalised 12 times, reduced to an alternately catatonic or manic pacing state during bi-polar episodes, heavy user of booze and hallucinogenics, busted for both his own possession of narcotics and those of Bud Powell, for whom he took the 'rap' that landed him inside for 60 days. My guess is that most of us would queue up with the rest of the rubberneckers hoping for a glimpse of road-kill in shades and sporting a beret. If it ain't obvious by now that Monk's enduring portrayal as a portal for 'derangement as muse' is completely erroneous, the inescapable facts seem to me pretty clear: He composed precisely zero when suffering from those bouts of manic depression he endured about 3 times a year during his life. Certainly his condition worsened towards the end but by that stage he was an incommunicado recluse cared for by his wife Nellie and his long-time benefactor Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. The latter installed a piano into his apartment, but Monk never went remotely near it once. His music would have sounded exactly as it sounds to us today with or without his debilitating mental illness. (The biggest regret is that perhaps his modest output of circa 70 tunes would have been significantly larger?)

What's fascinating about so many of Monk's compositions are that if the constituent elements are separated to be considered in isolation they sound plain vanilla 'wrong' e.g. 'Raise Four' could be deemed a conventional but 'quirky' blues interior but the hypnotic dissonant phrases he hammers over the top somehow conspire to contradict our habitual expectations of the form. Similarly on the aptly titled 'Ugly Beauty', Monk's only waltz original effortlessly embraces languid and listless simultaneously without any apparent tension or implied contradiction. Miraculous in short. Listen carefully to the piano solo here and witness a rare window into Monk's past as fastest gun in town from Minton's be-bop cradle in the 40's and you will hear glimpses of a technique comparable to Art Tatum. In the subsequent years he seems to have deliberately pared his pianistic style down to a minimalist level of what he felt was required to say the most with the least amount of virtuostic clutter. Progressive Rock shred enthusiasts and boudoir Olympians should really take heed of the following:

I’m one of the cats that used to start them playing like lightning. We used to play like lightning all night long up at Minton’s sometimes. I got tired playing fast all the time. You get so you automatically play fast. You can’t play no other way. If you notice, there’s a lot of musicians like that.(Thelonius Monk 1965)

There can't be many tunes in the jazz realm that span precisely 21 bars and any additions or subtractions would spoil the perfection of the overarching structure. 'Boo Boos Birthday' represents this astonishing feat and like so much of Monk's harmonic world inhabits a place where the internal logic of his conception is at odds with conventional musical norms. There are loads of musicians who attempt to ape Monk's angular melodies, clenched harmonies and off kilter rhythms but suffer the same fate as those whimsical pop tune-smiths who try to do a 'Syd Barrett by numbers'i.e. they just sound like upstart volcanoes who can only spit more rock.

One of the few disappointments on 'Underground' for me is 'Easy Street' which comes across as Monk's take on the sort of lounge jazz that has been endemic since the likes of Oscar Peterson raised the bar for the weight bearing expectations of piano stools the world over. Nice but nah...

'Green Chimneys' was inspired by the name of the school that Monk's daughter (Boo Boo) attended and has one of those obsessive percussive ostinatos that he made so inalienably his own. Charlie Rouse's sax really illuminates on this number as he has a rare intuitive grasp of how best to embellish upon the composer's habitually cryptic melodic shorthand. The side-men on this session represent one of the most stable and enduring of Monk's quartets: Ben Riley (drums) and Larry Gales (bass) and the aforementioned Rouse (tenor sax) had been extensively road-tested during Monk's European tours arranged by his lifelong champion and friend Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. Riley's drum solos on 'In Walked Bud' and 'Green Chimneys' are a litmus test for an interactive drummer i.e. his ideas are sourced from the implications of the music and not just by looting a locker full of 'whoop de doo' chops.

The vocal interpretation of the bop chestnut 'In Walked Bud' is a real eye opener and kudos to Jon Hendricks for providing a phenomenon hitherto unknown to me: a scat vocal and lyrics that do not induce toe curling agony in your reviewer. The chromatic descending harmonies are pure unadulterated Monk and he and the entire band manage to breathe invigorating new aenima into this rather mottled critter.

All things considered this is a very strong and enduring album that despite the art department of Columbia's efforts to sell Monk as one, is nowhere near the machine-gun totin' revolutionary status of something like 'Brilliant Corners' (albeit that was from nearly a decade prior)

If it's true that scarcity is the only thing that confers a value on anything, then Thelonious Monk's stock will continue to rise into the firmament and beyond until such time as humanoids are born bereft of ears and a fragile spongy connecting bridge betwixt.
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