My third grade buddy, Gary Griffith, invited Jeff Brekke and me to his house after school to hear a cool new single. He proudly set Jan and Dean’s Dead Man’s Curve on his 45rpm player and pointed out how you could hear the sound of real tires screeching in the song. Jeff and I were really impressed. Inspired, I suggested we next go to my house, since we also had gotten a cool new record. I plopped side one of Monk’s Dream on the turntable and fully expected Gary and Jeff to be as thrilled as I had been when I first heard it. To their credit, my 8-year-old friends stuck it out through the first piece. When “Body and Soul” started, Gary said to Jeff, “Want to go outside and play?” They walked outside, leaving Thelonious and me alone to ponder: “Why are we so outside the mainstream; just for celebrating all the basics of music in a brand new way?”
This is my favorite Thelonious Monk record, in my world where there are really no bad Thelonious Monk records. Here’s why I like it. It was his first recording for Columbia Records. They were the strongest jazz label of the day, with the intelligent Teo Macero, a composer in his own right, as producer. Teo knew darn well the brilliance of the Talent sitting at the piano bench (or dancing ‘round the piano, no doubt, from time to time). Monk shows a life in these recordings not found in the Prestige or Riverside recordings preceding them. Frankie Dunlop is so perfect a drummer for Monk. He understands completely what the music needs. Charles Rouse is to Monk what Paul Desmond was to Dave Brubeck, or Clarence Clemmons to Bruce Springsteen. Rouse’s tenor sax seems to have been born to grace this angular, muscular music with the perfect blend of blues, abstraction, and a sinewy mathmatics. John Ore’s bass is so buoyant that at first my 9-year-old ears thought he was free to play whatever note he pleased. Only later did I understand how structured and disciplined the music is, which makes the improvisation much more remarkable.
Here’s what you would have heard, were you Gary Griffith or Jeff Brekke, the moment I put the needle down:
Notice that the saxophone doesn’t play the melody. When Rouse comes in with the first solo, the band comes alive like a Joan Miro painting, each master spinning in his sphere, as the spheres paint a modern art canvas. To me, this was the essence of Hip, my references coming from things seen on black and white TV, sidelined in Time magazine, and satirized in Mad magazine. Hear how Monk completely stops playing chords, leaving Rouse to fend for himself for a full minute and a half! I imagine Monk getting off the bench to execute one of his famous ecstatic shuffles, but Monk comes in at just the right moment, opening with a flourish. I can understand my friends’ reaction. You kind of have to hang on for dear life when confronted with Monk for the first time.
Monk can make a piano solo devoid of prettiness but brimming with beauty. That’s what he does with the old chestnut, Body and Soul:
There are variations and chord extensions galore here; enough to give even J.S. Bach or Ali Akbar Khan ideas about music construction. There are big finger moments when you aren’t sure Monk meant to play that extra note, but it does nothing to diminish the big ideas expanding with each click of the key.
Bye-Ya is a deceptively simple shout of a tune that sets the players on fire.
Frankie Dunlop’s musical drums start by outlining the opening notes. The head is short and sweet; it doesn’t take long to get down to business. Chorus after chorus, one wonders if Charlie Rouse ever runs out of new ways to give these changes expression. Monk starts his solo like a locomotive revving up, then getting traction over stately terrain, but soon letting loose like a kite flying higher and higher, until high note chord clusters give way to a breathtaking return to Earth and the melody once again.
Had I possessed the eloquence, I would have told Gary Griffith and Jeff Brekke that this music was, for me, like playing in a vacant lot on a Summer day. The angular sloping of Monk’s notes were to me the jump I made playing Army, dodging enemy fire from my friends. The sumptuous space between chords was the beckoning of days to come as I grew to know the world further; days of light and crazy fun. Thanks, Thelonious!