Thelonious Monk, 40 years after his death

"A note can be as small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imagination," Thelonious Monk once said.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the jazz maestro's death. Over at Signal, DIY musicologist David Katznelson digs into "The Genius of Monk" and delivers a valuable view on Monk's daunting catalog of recordings through the eyes (and ears) of some of David's music world friends—artists, producers, writers. From Signal, recommendations from avant-jazz guitarist John Schott, formerly of the bands TJ Kirk and Planet Good:


I'm a Jazz musician; I'm also a passionate record collector. Acquiring every recorded note of Thelonious Monk has been an article of faith for me since I got my first Monk record in 1980. It's a moving target, because every few years some new recording is unearthed. Occasionally one of these finds changes the Monk Story as we've come to know it, as recently when a private recording of Monk playing Round Midnight in 1944 was discovered. My simple recommendation for five Monk recordings would be the complete recordings for the labels Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside, Columbia and Black Lion; that would amount to about thirty CDs. But here's a more selective list:

1) Genius of Modern Music vol 1. (Blue Note) Late 40s/early 50's recordings, in mono and not particularly well-recorded, originally released on 78's and 10" e.p. What I love about early Bebop, and early Thelonious Monk (not exactly the same thing) is that the recordings are PUNK: they're short, angular, purposefully weird, and full of youthful swagger. Some of the pieces Monk recorded for Blue Note are so difficult to play and improvise on that Monk pretty much abandoned them afterwards, such as Skippy, Who Knows, and Sixteen.

2) Thelonious Monk Trio (Prestige/OJC) Trio recordings from 1952 with Art Blakey and Max Roach. Simple, complex, singable, swinging, hilarious, compelling, joyous. The fact that the piano is ever so slightly out of tune somehow enhances rather than distracts from the music. Includes the first recordings of immortal Monk compositions Little Rootie Tootie, Trinkle Tinkle, Monk's Dream, Bemsha Swing and Blue Monk.

3) Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane (Riverside/OJC): Studio recordings from April-July 1957. There are only a handful of recordings of Coltrane and Monk together, but every one is electrifying, edifying, and indelible. This is when Coltrane's unique voice really emerged. Their reverent, romantic readings of Monk's ballads – Monk's Mood, Crepescule With Nellie, Ruby My Dear… music doesn't get more beautiful.

4) Round Midnight (in progress) (Riverside/OJC): A posthumously released studio outtake from 1957, about 23 minutes in length, of Monk preparing to record a solo version of his most famous composition. Despite having played the piece many, many times, he nevertheless puts it under a microscope, slows it down to a crawl, choosing each chord, even each note in each chord, as if he is composing the piece in real time. This glimpse into Monk's process was the inspiration for my eight hour treatment of Round Midnight.

5) Wait, I only get one more?! Impossible! London SessionsMonk's DreamMonk at Town HallUndergroundFive SpotBrilliant Corners! But I'll go with the compilation album on Sony/Legacy entitled Monk Alone: The Complete Columbia Solo Studio Recordings. Although Monk's interplay with drummers and horn players is inimitable and important, these solo recordings from the mid-1960s are like miniature cathedrals of music, magnificent doll houses, replete with furnishings from the twenties and thirties, Monk's childhood. He plays corny songs practically no one had heard of – "I Hadn't Anyone Till You" and "I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams" – and plays them with sincere affection, and just the tiniest bit of tongue in cheek.

Lastly, I would like to add the Robin D.G. Kelley's biography of Monk is one of the best biographies of a Jazz great, perhaps THE best. It makes you realize that all of the above recordings were made against a horrific backdrop of constant police harassment, incarceration, mental illness, experimental medical treatments, and the racist laws that prevented Monk from performing in New York for much of the fifties.

"The Genius of Monk" (David Katznelson's Signal)