Listening, Party For Two: Thelonious Monk, 'Epistrophy'

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Thelonious Monk: work your magic on the Boss Lady. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk: work your magic on the Boss Lady.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

My boss readily admits that she doesn't know a whole lot about jazz. But she lets me write all this nonsense on the Internet, so I'm not complaining. And at least she's willing to learn. So every week — or at least as often as possible — she and I get together to listen to and Instant Message about a different great jazz song.

Tomorrow — Saturday, Oct. 10, 2009 — would have been Thelonious Monk's 92nd birthday. So it was only appropriate that we listened to some Monk this week. Hoping the song title would spark a new insight, I went back to the early Blue Note recordings for this version of the signature tune "Epistrophy."

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"Epistrophy," from Thelonious Monk, The Complete Blue Note Recordings (Blue Note). Thelonious Monk, piano; Milt Jackson, vibraphone; John Simmons, bass; Shadow Wilson, drums. New York, N.Y.: Jul. 2, 1948.

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me: So, a question: you, with all your time in music journalism, surely have heard the name Thelonious Monk before.

Boss Lady: Of course.

me: So when I say "Thelonious Monk," what do you think of?

Boss Lady: Revered, idiosyncratic jazz icon.

me: Certainly a fair assessment. But what do you think? Listening to this, is it worthy of reverence? Is it idiosyncratic?

Boss Lady: Here's what I hear: an obsessive opening figure that gets more and more intense until it finally lets go and begins to breathe. It's barely reined-in intensity. I hear a strong, insistent personality in the music.

me: Insistent is right. That "obsessive opening figure" is actually just the bass line. Listen closely at :7 seconds in — that's actually the melody.
do-dah, do-DAH; do-dah do-DAH
Call that a melody if you will — but Monk insists on making that work.

Boss Lady: I guess the vibes sound so diffuse next to the piano line that they sound more like a bee buzzing around a bear than the actual focus.

me: Ah! But what is the actual focus? It's almost as much about the interplay than any sort of conventionally tuneful "melody" — not that Monk didn't write beautiful melodies too.
Anyway, here's another question: how does the idiosyncratic nature of the melody relate to the vibraphone solo? does it? what about Monk's piano solo?

Boss Lady: Hey PJ, you're too young to be a professor! Lighten up. I'd like to hear what your visceral reaction is to this music. Can't only live in your head!

me: Do I have to?
See, the thing about Monk to me is that it never stops sounding mysterious and new and mind-blowing. And I want to know why. Like, who writes like that? Who solos like that?

Boss Lady: What makes the solo sound unusual to you?

me: Space. Monk will play this figure, pause, play something like the same figure, pause. Then do something totally unexpected, like play a descending run really-really fast.
After years of listening to this stuff, I recognize so many Monk-isms. But they still surprise me every time.

Boss Lady: I guess I'm coming to this music with few preconceptions, so it's hard to tell when something sounds strange. To me it sounds like an active, living, mostly unscripted conversation between the piano and vibraphone.

me: I'm glad you said that.
Monk has written out this simple figure for the vibes. But that's all it is — a simple figure. They embellish to the point in which it's a conversation rather than a melody statement.

Boss Lady: It's sort of like seeing two people at the end of the bar in an intense dialogue. They're compelling because it seems really to mean something to both of them, and you kind of want to know what they're talking about. But at the same time, it's about them and it's not about you. So I can see how there's a barrier for people getting into this music. It's not exactly friendly.

me: It's not necessarily friendly at first, you're right. Monk wrote some awfully beautiful music which is more outright pleasing, but here is different.
His tunes were often just frameworks for working out ideas. (Oddly enough, I think that's part of why Monk is probably the most-played jazz composer today.)

Boss Lady: It's not a melody or a bass line that tugs at the heart, and it's not especially uplifting. To me, it sounds like two men engaged in an intense, evolving conversation about something important. And while the tension resolves a bit, it's like we've eavesdropped on just a snippet....there's more that came before, and there will be more later.

me: Yea!
You know, this was the number that Monk often used at the beginning and ends of his sets, so that's literally true.
But that's such a hip idea, no? Music as an intense conversation, as a process of working something out. It's like a puzzle. There's something about it — at least for me — that feels like: "I have to go to this fascinating foreign universe."

Boss Lady: You better save up your vacation time!

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