A long time ago I was given a cassette dub of Solo Monk. It’s the only Thelonious Monk record I’ve ever owned. Which is not to say I don’t value the unique contributions Monk made to 20th Century American music – his achievements are top-tier in that regard. And, though I’ve only owned those 13 different takes of Monk’s recorded output, rest assured that I am a true admirer and, when I hear his music, solo or with accompaniment, his singular genius is apparent and saying so seems a bit redundant. Proclaiming Monk’s genius is like proclaiming milk’s whiteness – it kind of goes without saying.
So, why the dearth of Monk in my record collection? Strangely, I think it’s because his genius was so singular, in fact, that it never really evolved. The specific qualities one could identify from a Monk performance or composition in the late 40’s stayed constant through the remaining years of his life and career with astounding consistency. Compare how far Mingus or Miles Davis or Coltrane moved in a similar period and Monk’s resilience against the demands of time is revealing. For example, a reduction of Miles’ career into five-year chunks shows us an artist who skipped from The Birth of the Cool to Walkin’ to Kind of Blue to E.S.P. to In a Silent Way. That’s a load of ground to cover and that kind of insatiable exploratory impulse is what makes Miles, Miles. What made Monk, Monk was a consistent eccentricity that remained regardless of the milieu into which it was thrust. So, his solo work is as pure as I need it to be and all other permutations are unnecessary.
(Plus…shhh…don’t tell anyone but I’m not that much of a bop fan.)
Jason Moran apparently doesn’t share my take on Monk. In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall 1959 was a multimedia reconsideration of the titular concert – a concert that featured Monk as part of a tentet. The players in The Big Bandwagon, assembled by Moran, were certainly capable (I especially enjoyed the jocular trombone of Isaac Smith) of interpreting Monk’s odd melodies while also paying tribute to some of Monk’s specific arrangements. Moran clued the audience into these tributes by playing recordings of Monk’s deliberative process during rehearsal. It was interesting to hear the man speak for himself and then have Moran’s band express his wishes across fifty years of history. (It’s important to note that the Big Bandwagon resisted the lures of re-creation. That is, their aim wasn’t to replicate the 1959 concert but to revisit it with contemporary perspective, most evidently in the playing of drummer Nasheet Watts who wasn’t afraid to pepper his breaks with Latin rhythms from the 1960’s or James Brown funk from the 1970’s.) It was precisely the kind of historic transformation that multimedia and performative theory can hardily promote.
But, these high-minded performance strategies also require subjects that can absorb, maintain and even thrive upon an excess of attention. For me, the question remains whether Monk, the musical genius, requires our re-visitations. He was/is complete whether we we pay attention or not.
(I would like to thank Philip Bither, Michele Steinwald and everyone who made possible this past season of music at the Walker Art Center. Thanks also to those who maintain this space at Walker Blogs. I’ve truly enjoyed blogging these various performances and appreciate the opportunity. For those interested, in the next week or so I intend to post an entry that will consider music programming at institutions like the Walker…you may consider it a meta-post if you want but I hope it won’t be as dull as that sounds. Thanks again, everybody.)