Charles Tolliver and Jason Moran pay homage to Thelonious Monk.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
March 10 2009 6:59 AM

Monk's Art

How do you pay homage to the inimitable Thelonious Monk?

Thelonious Monk with bassist Larry Gales in 1967. Click Image to expand.
Thelonious Monk with bassist Larry Gales in 1967

Two of the most exciting jazz concerts I've seen in a long time were the recent Thelonious Monk tributes at Town Hall in New York, and one reason for the thrill—beyond the treat of hearing great music played live by great musicians—was the sheer surprise that they were great, for tribute concerts tend to be, almost by nature, lame.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan, Slate's "War Stories" columnist, also writes about culture. His book 1959: The Year Everything Changedis due out in June. He can be reached at war_stories@hotmail.com.

Certainly, there's a place for jazz repertory—recitals of the classics—but, with some of those classics, the projects are fraught with doom from the get-go. For instance, Charlie Parker not only invented a new way of playing jazz; he also perfected it. A generation of alto saxophonists latched on to his style, but the best of them knew better than to play his tunes very often, for fear of inviting comparison, inevitably to their detriment.

Covering Duke Ellington poses a different sort of risk: He composed much of his music with specific band members in mind; other big bands fall short when tackling Ellington's scores, in part because their musicians, while they might be very good, aren't Johnny Hodges or Paul Gonsalves or Cootie Williams.

And so, when you go to a Parker or Ellington tribute concert, you usually wind up wishing you'd stayed home and listened to your Parker or Ellington albums instead.

Musicians who dare devote an entire album or concert to Thelonious Monk are toying with still more dangerous fire. Monk was a completely distinctive pianist. His jabbing dynamics, his jarring cadences, his oddball intervals that seem at once slapdash and preternaturally precise—he was to the keyboard what Picasso was to the canvas, and nobody can play or paint the same way, to the point where it's a bit crazy to try. Most of those who make the attempt either round off the edges or sharpen them to the point of parody.

A few intrepid souls have leapt into the ring with Monk and held their own. In the mid-1990s, Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez put out an album called Panamonk, which, by highlighting (though not overdoing) the suggestive Latin lilt in Monk's music, made us hear Monk in a new, intriguing way. Around the same time, Fred Hersch recorded an all-Monk solo-piano album, called Thelonious, in which he managed to put his own stamp on the music while imbibing a full dose of Monk's spirit. " 'Round Midnight," as Monk first played it in the 1940s, was a haunting, eerie tune.

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Hersch's take, though very different, nailed that spectral quality.

The Monk tributes at Town Hall last month—the first led by Charles Tolliver, the second by Jason Moran—faced a further challenge. Both were commemorating the 50th anniversary of a single concert—Monk's first stab at leading a big band through his music, performed at the same Town Hall in February 1959. The concert was recorded live and released as an album that came to be hailed as a modern masterpiece. How do you duplicate—or otherwise capture "the spirit"—of that? Try to sound too much like Monk and you risk coming off as a pale imitation; try for something too different and you risk being dismissed as insufficiently Monkish.

The first of the two tribute concerts took the former course to an extreme degree. Charles Tolliver, an accomplished trumpeter and arranger who attended the 1959 concert as a teenager, was commissioned to transcribe all the parts (listening over and over to the LP, since the original sheet music was lost long ago), put together a 10-piece band, and lead them through a straight re-creation of the event The musicians were allowed to improvise their solos—this is jazz, after all—but the pianist, Stanley Cowell, was instructed to match Monk's solos as closely as possible.

Miraculously, Tolliver pulled it off. The concert, which could have been an "academic" exercise, was anything but. The musicians had no doubt listened to the album countless times, but they owned these arrangements, playing them as if for the first time—not too perfectly, not at all stiffly, leaving some space to sway in—and blowing solos that, in some cases, rivaled the originals. I would single out Howard Johnson on baritone sax, Aaron Johnston on tuba, Marcus Strickland on tenor sax, and—above all—Stanley Cowell. A longtime band-mate of Tolliver's—and, like him, a connoisseur of the melodic avant-garde—Cowell embodied Monk like no other pianist I've heard, grasping not only the material, which is tricky enough, but Monk's off-center rhythms and distinctive touch without sounding at all mannered. Listen to the first track of the 1959 concert, with Monk zigzagging through the opening bars of "Thelonious":

Now listen to Cowell doing the same, here (jump ahead and listen from 27:52).

Did the concert stand up to Monk's original? Not quite—how could it? But it came closer, in substance and, more to the point, in spirit, than anyone had any reason to expect. It was an astonishing feat. (A podcast of the entire concert, recorded by WNYC, can be heard here.)