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Monk in Tokyo by Thelonious Monk

1963 was a very good year for Thelonious Sphere Monk. After almost two decades of neglect at best, and derision at worst, from many jazz fans and much of the critical establishment, he was finally gaining a measure of the respect his singular talents as a composer, pianist, and bandleader so richly deserved. His quartet's first tour of Japan began with the May 21, 1963 engagement at Sankei Hall documented on this nicely recorded two-CD set. An assortment of bootlegs from this tour have surfaced over the years on various labels, generally of abysmal sound quality, but this is the first timethe unedited Tokyo concert sets have appeared on CD in North America. It was definitely worth the wait.

Monk had signed a recording contract with Columbia in 1962, and for the first time his albums were receiving widespread international distribution. The relationship was a stormy one, as most of the best live recordings languished unissued in the vaults until after his death in 1982. Monk was scheduled to appear on the cover of Time magazine in November, 1963, but President Kennedy's assassination delayed the cover and in-depth profile until February, 1964. It must have been a surrealist experience for long time devotees to spy his iconoclastic visage on the cover for the first time; Time certainly was (and is) a bastion of mainstream journalism.

Monk's wholly original piano style firmly defied copycats. Often unfairly castigated for a supposed lack of technique, he approached the instrument so idiosyncratically that direct comparisons with other pianists were almost always invalid. The subtleties of his laconic minimalism were seemingly beyond the ken of most musicians, fans, and critics during the periodhe first fully developed his art. His technique was functional in the truest sense of the word; he undoubtedly had the means to communicate exactly where he had been, where he was, and where he wanted to go. Monk's method of playing the instrument with hands flat and horizontal, fingers splayed, accounts at least in part for the singular sound he produced. The curved fingers orthodoxyof European pedagogy is flaunted in his unconventional approach, and traditional piano teachers probably cringe if they happen to see film footage of one of his performances. Monk's harmonic sophistication was unparalleled, often laying down counterpoint shapes at odds with the particular tune's key signature, and always landing on the perfect chord at the most opportune moment. The most opportune moment. Therein lies another key to his unique brilliance. Monk never forgot that the piano is a percussion as well as a stringed instrument, playing the keyboard as if it were 88 tuned drums. A few years later Cecil Taylor reminded us of this fact again, but Taylor sounded like a whole African drum choir, whereas Monk could be likened to a solitary hand-drummer coaxing a myriad of sounds and patterns from a single skin stretched over a barrel. He once stated: "Jazz is an adventure. I'm after new chords, new ways of syncopating, new figures, new runs. How to use notes differently. That's it. Just using notes differently."

When Monk became house pianist at Minton's Playhouse on West 118th Street in Harlem in 1939, he began taking part in the fabled after-hours jam sessions that forged a new aesthetic for the 1940s. Frustrated by the top-heavy arrangements and lack of solo space in the big swing bands, some of the most forward-thinking young musicians of the day came together to experiment, and in the process created a new kind of jazz, a music aimed at the head as well as the heart, a music geared to active listeners rather than dancers. Kenny Clarke, often referred to as "the father of modern jazz drumming," was there. Guitarist Charlie Christian would drop in after his gig with Benny Goodman's band at the Meadowbrook. Trumpeter Roy Eldridge was there, fresh from his engagement with Gene Krupa at the Hotel Pennsylvania. After playing with Jay McShann's group at the Savoy Ballroom, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, already creating a buzz among fellow musicians, would take part. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, still with Cab Calloway at the time, was there. A young Max Roach honed his chops at Minton's, subbing for his mentor Clarke at the drum set. And trumpeter Howard McGhee, thoroughly warmed up after his sets with Charlie Barnet at the Park Central Hotel, would add his clarion calls to the proceedings. These sessions, and the ones at Clark Monroe's Uptown House, gave birth to the music that came to be known as bebop, later bop or simply modern jazz. Bebop moved downtown to the clubs on 52nd Street circa 1943.

In 1944, tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, one of the few musicians of the older generation who embraced the new sounds, led a session that most jazz historians cite as the first bebop recording. Monk was the pianist. As the 1940s progressed, he led his own groups and played briefly with Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra. Although he eventually acquired the sobriquet High Priest of Bop, priesthood didn't translate to many paying gigs, and he rarely appeared in public through the balance of the decade, plagued as well by an assortment of political and social problems. The pyrotechnical empyrean brilliance of Gillespie and Parker captured the attention of a new generationof jazz fans, but Monk's mastery of lacunae was too abstruse to be fully appreciated, except among the hippest young musicians. According to Miles Davis, "Monk taught me more about music composition than anyone else on 52nd Street." His pianist contemporary Bud Powell begat scores of imitators, while Monk remained an enigma. He made a series of superb records for Blue Note that are now considered essential classics, but created little stir when they were released. Monk never doubted the validity of his artistic expression during these troubled times, and seemed to know that eventually the world would catch up with him.

He remained in relative obscurity until 1955, when a long and fruitful relationship with Riverside records began. Jazz critics and fans finally began to take notice, and a watershed in terms of populist acceptance was reached in the Summer of 1957, with a justifiably celebrated extended engagement at The Five Spot, featuring tenor saxophonist John Coltrane as a member of the quartet."Working with Monk," Coltrane said in a Down Beat interview, "brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I learned from him in every way. I would talk to Monk about musical problems and he would sit at the piano and show me the answers by playing them." On February 28, 1959, Monk brought his delightfully spare, angular compositions to the stage of Town Hall, with Hall Overton providing arrangements for a large group; the concert was released on Riverside as The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall. Also in 1959, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse replaced Johnny Griffin in the quartet.

Rouse remained with Monk until 1970, and when the Japanese tour in 1963 commenced, their communication was already at a practically telepathic level. He too had developed his craft during the glory days of 52nd Street, working with the path-breaking bop big bands of Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie, recording with Tadd Dameron and Fats Navarro, then appearing with both the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Count Basie's Octet, and taking part in some of trumpeter Clifford Brown's finest early Blue Note recordings. He co-led The Jazz Modes with French hornist Julius Watkins and worked briefly with Buddy Rich before joining Monk. He modified his style to negotiate the challenging nooks and crannies of Monk's tunes. While most "compositions" of the bop era were blowing vehicles fashioned from the chord changes of "I Got Rhythm" or other standards, Monk created original melodies that an untutored jazz fan might actually hum or whistle on the way home from a club. He disdained the practice, followed by many horn soloists of the bop and hard bopyears, of "running the changes" at blinding speed, stringing together favorite licks and runs, and never referring back to a melody. Woe unto the soloist who attempted to coast or take the easy way out in Monk's groups! He was a supreme melodist, and refused to countenance empty virtuosity. "Monk, at his most inspired, " as Gunther Schuller put it, "thinks of over-all shapes and designs or ideas."

With Monk, Rouse became a master of horizontal improvisation. He possessed an enviable technical command of the horn, producing a rich and individualistic tone. Imagine, if you will, sitting on a rock by a gently running stream at the edge of a marsh, dappled by late afternoon sunlight, and watching, fascinated, as a cattail gracefully bends over and falls into the brook several yards upstream. By the time the plant floats past your feet, the reed has opened up, expanding exponentially. There's something of the pulpy snap of an alto in Rouse's sound, without sacrificing the tenor's range. It's a reedy, hollow, expansive quality ideally suited to Monk's minimalist structures.

Hearing Monk and Rouse together is analogous to entering an art museum and viewing paintings by Grandma Moses and Andrew Wyeth displayed side-by-side: a glorious primitive meets a technically accomplished realist. Of course, Monk can be considered a "primitive" only in the broadest possible sense; his harmonic sophistication, melodic imagination, and rhythmic daring were anything but unpolished; there is, however, a Zen-like primal connection to the shadow world in his muse, an antenna tuned in to the primeval. By the standards of Western psychology, Monk's eccentric personality was "off." By the standards of traditional societies, he was unquestionably a shaman. As Bill Evans reflected, "Thelonious Monk is an example of an exceptionally uncorrupted creative talent."

This quartet with drummer Frankie Dunlop and bassist Butch Warren is very possibly the finest working group Monk ever assembled. Everyone checked their egos at the stage door, and played as a true unit. As Monk said, "Everything is happening all the time. Every googolplexth of a second." This is music devoid of mundane questions or pat answers. Warren, in some ways, was a throwback to a previous era. His four-square walking bass, with an unshakeable time sense, provided the quartet's fulcrum. Like Leroy Vinnegar, another power-walker, he rarely strayed into the then-fashionable upper registers of the instrument, even during his long solos in the second half of this concert. He provides a thick, deep, springy carpet of sound. Dunlop's terpsichorean style is sometimes like a gliding soft-shoe, and elsewhere akin to an elegant but muscular tap number. There's nary a trace of bombast to be found in his light, graceful approach to the kit.

There was certainly no lack of impressive working groups in the jazz world of 1963. Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers and Max Roach were at the peak of their powers and popularity. In fact, both of these bands also toured Japan that year. Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Horace Silver were on a roll. Sonny Rollins was back from his bridge sabbatical and playing better than ever. Cannonball Adderley's Sextet was making waves around the world. The latter two likewise visited Japan in 1963. Few groups had been together with the same personnel as long as Monk's, however, and their rarefied level of empathetic interaction is abundantly evident at this concert, showing conclusively that they were one of the premier jazz ensembles of the day.

The program for the two sets at Sankei Hall featured eight of Monk's best-known compositions and two standards. His theme, "Epistrophy," co-written with Kenny Clarke, appears both as a brief set-break closing the first half, and in an extended version at the end. Rouse's solo on the full-length closer is a gem, doubtless among the very best he ever recorded. There is a fascinating segment midway through where he pulls his embouchure back from the mouthpiece, playing the end of the reed, and obtaining a distinctive percussive effect. In his own solo here, Monk again shows himself to be the Cardinal of Caesura; one's ears hear notes that aren't there, because he plays only the most essential parts of some chords, and leaves the imagination free to roam.

The opening "Straight, No Chaser" is a fitting warm-up, taking the familiar theme in some enigmatic new rhythmic directions. It seems at first to be in a relatively straight-forward duple meter,but Monk tugs playfully at the time, gently pinching our collective cheek, seeming to say: "Hey! Listen! There's more than one way to play this tune." The forward momentum is never disturbed though; it swings like crazy.

Monk's lovely ballad "Pannonica" - penned for his friend the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who helped him through the lean times of the early 1950s after his cabaret card was lifted by the NYPD following his arrest and imprisonment taking the rap for his friend Bud Powell in a heroin bust - is next in a passionate performance. Rouse takes an eloquently emotional solo thatreaches deep to the melodic heart of this powerful piece. Monk's brotherly love for the Baroness is clear and omnipresent. "It's always night or we wouldn't need light," as he once said.

Then comes one of his vaguely Oriental, sweet-and-sour solo piano miniatures. "Just a Gigolo" was among his favorite vintage pop songs, and he recorded it several times, beginning in 1954 with a version on Prestige. There are sly allusions to a sort of stripped-down Harlem stride, with James P.Johnson's ghost smiling in the wings.

The "Evidence" is clear that no "Jackie-ing" for position was necessary for "Bemsha Swing" to mean a thing. The quartet's energy level builds and builds through these three Monk staples, showingthat this group could smoke 'em with the best of the era. The enthusiastic Japanese audience is with them every step of the way, and by the time the set-break "Epistrophy" rolls around, the smiles and gestures of appreciation must have been plentiful. The applause certainly was. A play-by-play is redundant at this point. Suffice to say that beautiful bright moments appear everywhere, and you'll discover "new" ones every time you listen.

Bandleader Tommy Dorsey dubbed himself "The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing," and his signature "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" opens the second set. Monk's abundant sense of irony and roguish dadaistic charm are light-years from the well-scrubbed precision of Dorsey's orchestra, and this version is more about lapidescence than sentimentality.

The quartet was obviously fired up by the alert audience, and positively volcanic extended renditions of "Hackensack" and "Blue Monk" are up next. The second tune seems at first to be inordinately relaxed, almost sleepy, in its gentle canter, but there's a tensile strength underlying it allthat is irresistibly buoyant. Monk lays out through Warren's lengthy, wily, resonant bass solo with the exception of a hilarious backhand swipe across the keys, delivered with his characteristic puckish humor at exactly the right spot. One can only speculate on the visuals. Was Monk sitting immobile on the bench during the first part of the solo, lost in reverie? Was he doing one of those mystic Monk dances around the piano? Did he slip backstage to refresh himself with a beverage? And was the aural exclamation point a cue for Warren to crank up the intensity a notch or two? The audience reacts instantly and ecstatically, clearly relishing the moment. He throws in another more low-keysplatch of keyboard color at the beginning of Dunlop's canny caracole of a solo, launching the drummer into an imaginative and melodic story. In Monk's own words: "It can't be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean."

"Monk has got his own poetry," said soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, "and you've got to get the fragrance of it." And the multi-faceted David Amram put it another way: "Monk's music is like Bach's. It has everything in it you'll ever need to know." Well, you needn't search further than Monk in Tokyo to always know the fragrant poetry of his muse. It's some of the finest live quartet music ever released, and that means it's among the essential jazz discs of the last part of the 20th century.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Thelonious Monk
  • CD Title: Monk in Tokyo
  • Genre: BeBop / Hard Bop
  • Year Released: 2001
  • Reissue Original Release: 1963
  • Record Label: Columbia / Legacy
  • Musicians: Thelonious Monk (piano), Charlie Rouse (tenor saxophone), Butch Warren (bass), Frankie Dunlop (drums).
  • Rating: Five Stars
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