Steelonious: Taking the Piano out of Monk Tunes

In my phone I have a fake book in pdf format, with hand-printed lead sheets for almost 70 Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) compositions, from Ask Me Now to Worry Later. I’m trying to learn them.

So two Sundays ago my friend Marian Eines (of the brass band Zlatne Uste) and I met up at Barbès (small music room that often features brass bands) in Brooklyn for Mike Neer on lap steel guitar with music from his album Steelonious. Thelonious played piano.

Monk compositions are jazz essentials — the canon inside the canon — and Steelonious sings them with new voices and dances to different beats.

Epistrophy anticipates trumpeter Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder (a generation later). Ask Me Now has a sweet coda. In Off Minor, drummer Diego Voglino seems to conjure Gene Krupa. Nutty is a reggae. I Mean You is “Texas style,” in Neer’s words, and Round Midnight is “soft and pretty” with a wisp of Hawaii.

Just when I decide that Neer’s steel soars above and guitarist Nate Radley stays more rhythmic, they switch. Matt Lavoca on bass responds to everyone, always adjusting. Steelonious blows new air through Monk’s tunes.

Straight No Chaser has a march beat, Misterioso a bossa. The steel and the guitar divide the melody between them. To close, they play In Walked Bud but not at the original jaunty tempo. Slower.

Soon I’ll go to the Jazz Gallery for guitarist Miles Okazaki, whose solo album Work: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Monk, has iron — not steel — on the cover. It’s a picture of train tracks crossing in Rocky Mount, NC, where Monk grew up.

 

 

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