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How Do You Cover Thelonious Monk?

In playing Monk's music, do you fight weird with weird? Evening Standard/Getty Images hide caption

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Evening Standard/Getty Images

In playing Monk's music, do you fight weird with weird?

Evening Standard/Getty Images

What are your favorite covers of compositions by Thelonious Monk? Why?

Here are two recently-recorded tunes, as a starting point for discussion. First, here's "Gallop's Gallop," a hard tune made harder by the Microscopic Septet.

How Do You Cover Thelonious Monk?

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"Gallop's Gallop," from The Microscopic Septet, Friday The 13th (Cuneiform Records). Phillip Johnston, soprano saxophone; Don Davis, alto saxophone; Mike Hashim, tenor saxophone; Dave Sewelson, baritone saxophone; Joel Forrester, piano; David Hofstra, bass; Richard Dworkin, drums. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Released Sept. 2010.

And here's Jason Moran and the Bandwagon recording its Mr.-Potato-Head modular rearrangement of "Crepuscule With Nellie" at NPR's Studio 4A this May.

Crepuscule With Nellie

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"Crepuscule With Nellie," from Jason Moran and the Bandwagon, in studio at NPR. Jason Moran, piano; Tarus Mateen, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums. Washington, D.C.: Recorded May 2010.

Monk has been on the mind lately — it's the pianist and composer's birthday this Sunday. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz had its annual competition recently. The Micros have a new record out (!) of Monk tunes, called Friday The 13th. And The Bandwagon has been playing this tune at the Village Vanguard this week — you can download the recording we made of Wednesday's early set.

These two recordings above are, in some sense, Monk tunes done the way I personally prefer them.

The man was a weird composer, and I mean that in a good way. (Peter Keepnews writes in the liner notes to Friday The 13th that Monk wasn't always happy with that descriptor for his music, but I mean it, as Keepnews does, as connoting originality and glee.) If you're going to tackle one of these knotty little puzzles, written by such an original human being, I feel — this is just me speaking here — that you ought to bring something unique of your own to the table. A timbre combination, or arrangement, or phrasing, or something: Give us something weird in return.

The Microscopic Sextet seems like an ensemble particularly suited to doing something smart with Monk's music. The band's original music has a certain innate whimsy, backed by serious musicianship; maybe it's partly the result of stacking a saxophone quartet on top of a rhythm section. It's also the arrangements: "Gallop's Gallop," given new life by Phillip Johnston, sports that staggered, sloppy-on-purpose drag of an introduction, then a tactful soprano sax plus snare-and-bass duet, and Joel Forrester's piano solo making sense of the madness. The melody statements have that baritone sax thing, that low-end power. The whole thing doesn't flatten out the curves and spikes; it makes them stand out more.

Moran's version of "Crepuscule With Nellie" is inspired, he says, by the idea of negative space — the area around the image. He chops up the melody into segments, gets the band to improvise over each fragment for a while, furrowing out every corner of negative space they can find. The band rampages to a climax — and then at the end, plays the melody relatively straight. Beautiful melody, it turns out. The same goes for its gonzo, systematic disassembly.

Any jazz musician will tell you it's immensely hard, this making of Monk's music into your own. But thank goodness Monk's music has such staying power, so much fun in it, that people keep wanting to try. What are your favorite attempts?


Related At NPR Music: Monk Tribute Albums Which Aren't Terrible