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.
Time is of essence in Thelonious Monk’s concise melodies, syncopated and swinging. Notes rub against each other. The music dances. Conceived for quartet, the pleasure multiplied as Chick Corea and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra delivered a concert of ten Monk compositions arranged by band members and Corea, who adapted “Work” (from 1951) specifically for this band and this concert.
Pianist Corea graduated from high school in Boston and came to New York to see Thelonious Monk perform. On one date, because the club owner had said “Play short sets,” Monk set an alarm clock – an old mechanical clock with two bells like mouse ears atop the face – to ring after half an hour. Corea pitches his close-handed tremolos so that they too ring like bells and almost clash. Improvising lines, he always keeps the band in mind as he supports and responds and prods and interrogates. I’m a better listener when I listen to him.
Trombonist Vincent Gardner arranged “Light Blue” – introduced by leader Wynton Marsalis as “unusual” in form and content – and Corea trilled near the top of the piece. A bit later, two trumpets trilled together, recalling the pianist’s moment, but in fact Chick had set them up. Gardner’s re-invention of “Trinkle Tinkle” featured a Marsalis solo. After an extended section with lo-o-ng tones (also trilled), the trumpeter came right back and punched out his phrases to rock the house. We the audience loved it.
The program was Four in One Think of One Light Blue Hackensack Bye-Ya Trinkle Tinkle Epistrophy Work (Chick’s arrangement) Ask Me Now (described by Marsalis as romantic but I’d say only in the closing fully orchestrated chorus) and Rhythm-a-ning.
As we focused on Corea and the LCJO in Rose Hall, pianist Helen Sung was playing small-group Monk a few steps away at Dizzy’s, and Herlin Riley was funkifying Monk in the Appel Room. So for every piece I heard, I was missing two.