Tonight my friend Marian and I went to a pair of documentaries, footage from 1968. They are “Monk” and “Monk in Europe.”
The first shows the pianist Thelonious Monk in New York. He and his trio are playing at The Village Vanguard and recording for Columbia Records. The second film is from a northern European tour that included London, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin and Rotterdam — travel, rehearsal and performance footage. Fifty years after they were shot, “Monk” and “Monk in Europe” come from an analog age. The light can be silvery and warm, the sound can get a little edgy but it’s remarkably good. Everything is real and draws you in.
In Europe Monk seems in turn travel-lagged and completely present, musically in charge during the concerts. Up close you see his face, his hand over hand technique, his pulsing feet. Toward the end of “Monk in Europe,” he plays several choruses of “Ask Me Now” with each phrase setting up the next one as though he’s advancing a story or building a case. Sometimes he pulls back from the narrative to embellish it or just run down the keyboard. For me it’s more logic than narrative. Music is his medium and he communicates. To see him create in real time is the gift of these films.
The crew — two brothers, one shooting and the other doing sound — gets up close. Monk is almost always in the frame and when he’s not, you feel he should be. While the octet sound checks in the hall, back at the hotel, Nellie Monk helps her husband get dressed for the concert. There’s a sense that he might be running late.
And yet having him in the picture does not guarantee that you know how he feels about things. That happens only when he’s playing, and maybe that’s an illusion too.
Charles Rouse, Larry Gales, Ben Riley play saxophone, bass and drums in both films. For the octet, Phil Woods (so young that I did not recognize his face) and Johnny Griffin complete the sax section, Ray Copeland on trumpet and James Cleveland on trombone. Clark Terry drops in as a guest soloist. He and Monk leave the stage with arms around each other.
Monk is last seen sitting between his niece and his wife, buckling his seatbelt to fly home, beaming a smile straight into the camera.