Thelonious Monk, trouble-shooting the silence

Thelonious Sphere Monk

Ever since listening to the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at the Port of Ibiza, I have wanted to write something about Monk. But, everytime I listen to him I find it harder to describe what it is that makes his music so fascinating. Last night I watched Straight No Chaser and this evening Thelonious Monk: American Composer. My conclusion is Monk does not play the piano, he troubleshoots the silence. Here are my observations . . .

What I generally love about the pianists (and Jazz pianists in particular) is how they think with their hands. Their fingers appear to move almost independently of the mind. I think of Bill Evans’ fingers masterminding the perfect pitch or McCoy Tyner, Wynton Kelly, or Herbie Hancock. But, when I watch Monk play, I can see that he is not thinking with his hands. He is thinking with his entire body. As a matter of fact, the experience of watching Monk play is even more rewarding than listening to the music alone. Monk’s body language is similar to that of his listener. He is dancing with his music. At least at first glance.

I also love to watch Duke Ellington play. But, Duke is entertaining to watch because he is the epitome of cool. Not only is the Duke cool when he plays, he looks like he is having loads of fun at it. And for most people, it is incredibly difficult to be cool and show that you are enjoying it at the same time. This is what strikes me about Monk, he doesn’t look like he is enjoying the experience. His playing is vital, even crucial. His not doing it for fun, he is playing because he has to. And it looks like he is trying to desperately stop something horrible from happening, and he does this with his entire body.

Personally, I prefer the piano trio format. For me that’s the best way to hear the pianist in action. There are no horns to get in the way or to steal the protagonism. In fact, I would recommend the Thelonious Monk Trio as a starting point to really get to hear what Monk is doing. Or to understand how very differently he confronts a tune, try Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington. Monk’s view of the world is totally unique.

Nevertheless, after watching two Monk documentaries and listening to him play with John Coltrane, Charlie Rouse, and Sonny Rollins the last few days, I gained a new respect for his quartets and larger arrangements. What I noticed was that Monk had no problem sharing the spot light. He is trying to solve a problem and he welcomes the help. He also lets the guys play and can stay in the background, adding his two cents without overshadowing anybody. In the Straight No Chaser DVD, there is a scene where Rouse is trying to figure out what Monk wants him to play. He repeatedly askes which notes to play, and Monk finally says, “play whatever you want.” He tells another saxophonist simply to pick his spot and blow.

When I was in college, I used to sit up all night with my friends Julio and Federico, and we’d pretend to be really intelligent. I would like to say pseudo-intellectual things like “it’s not the notes but the silence between them that makes the music.” (I used to even say the same thing about letters on a page forming words). I think this is very true of Miles Davis when his horn breaks through the silence and makes the silence meaningful. But, with Monk it is different.

Watching and listening to Monk play, I get the sense that he is at the helm of some vessel in stormy weather. He is piloting it from the control panel of his piano. If you watch his body, he is struggling to keep his balance and he is fighting for the vessel’s survival. Every once in a while, he gets control of the ship. When this happens, he often stops playing, and like a sea captain that goes out onto the deck to survey the surroundings, he gets up from the piano to dance on stage while his musicians take over. Once the vessel starts to rock again, he immediately returns to the helm.

His legs are moving frantically to keep his balance, his body hunched over the piano, and his fingers desperately plugging away at the keyboard. It almost looks like a parody. He is not in control of the music, he is fighting to control it. Watch carefully. He is trouble-shooting. It is almost as if the piano were springing leaks of silence, and he is plugging those leaks with notes.

As if often the case, you listen to Monk and are surprised when he plays a given note. He is about to play an obvious note and then suddenly pauses and plays a different one. He uses the silence and pauses as suspense like in an horror movie. Still, I don’t think he is manipulating the silence, I think he is fighting it. There he is playing away, sailing his vessel. He has the ship in pretty good control regardless of some rough water, and he is cruising over the dips, ripples, and waves to the Jazz tradition of the Duke, Armstrong, and often using the language of stride piano. But, then the piano starts to spring its leaks of silence again. Every once in a while, he will suddenly stop, wipe his forehead or fix the rings on his fingers. He’ll even stop and you can see him thinking, trying to figure out where the next big chunk of silence will be coming from. Often when he has just filled in a couple of leaks, he’ll pause and look down over the piano. It reminds me of Muhammed Ali after knocking down an opponent with his fist still cocked and waiving in the air.

The only other musician that I can think of with a similar relationship to music and an instrument would have to be Jimi Hendrix. Both were very rooted in music tradition, incredibly unique and extraordinarily recognizable, and masters of their instruments.

In the Jazz documentary by Ken Burns, Wynton Marsalis describes Monk as the duality between a wise old man and a little child. As I mentioned, I see him as a pilot struggling to keep his vessel afloat in some nasty storms of silence. Nevertheless, often when Monk finishes a piece, he walks off stage with a big smile that reflects Marsalis’ description. That’s when I think this eccentric sailor is just someone who is taking the piss out of his audiance and has just had a big laugh out our expense.

Please excuse the lack of coherence in this piece. I have been typing away to Thelonious in the foreground.

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2 Comments

Filed under Essays, Jazz

2 responses to “Thelonious Monk, trouble-shooting the silence

  1. propaganda, try Josef Hofmann.

  2. Pingback: Grave Error » Thelonious Monk on YouTube

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