Saturday, November 7, 2009

Thelonious Monk, Beethoven, etc.

As an experimental/rock musician and songwriter, I don’t claim to always be able to understand jazz. We appreciators of music tend to find that our tastes and aptitudes travel in cycles. For a month at a time we get obsessed with garage rock, then Beethoven, then bebop, never paying much attention to why (And who really cares anyway.) After buying a really nice pair of headphones, I automatically got back into the richness of acoustic instruments, namely classical and jazz, because of the high standards of sound quality demanded by unrelenting jazz and classical fanatics. My favorites tend to be the crazier of the composer/performers, like Beethoven and Thelonious Monk.

The first Monk I ever heard was not Monk at all, but rather an original vinyl LP of Chick Corea and his phenomenal combo doing a very admirable job at impersonating the often puzzling and always brilliant style of Mr. Thelonious, playing all covers of Monk tunes. I was walking home listening to a song called ‘Brilliant Mississippi’, track three on Thelonious Monk Live at the Monterrey Jazz festival 1964, and discovered a brilliant gem -- the perfect solo.
It’s like listening to Bach improvising a folksy musical joke, channeling the muse flawlessly—some lusty teenage giddiness that is helplessly contagious.

As usual he morphs all his mistakes expertly into gorgeous eccentric statements, like he’s proving beyond a shadow of a doubt the non-existence of mistakes. At least if you’re in the mood for bebop. It’s musical aikido, redirecting purposely unbalanced artistic thrusts into oddly fitting harmonic motion. It’s feeling the flow and following it, and all the while creating it. Even to a non-musician Monk's phrases on 'Brilliant Mississippi' can be heard line after line obscuring and then decoding themselves, creating a sort of exaggerated wonky musical expressionism similar to Van Gogh’s blossoming, fantastically colorful flowers, which only someone half-crazy could pull off so perfectly.

It’s easy to tell when it’s a composer who is improvising, Like Hendrix or Miles Davis or, from what I’ve read, Beethoven and especially J.S. Bach. Both Bach and Beethoven were unmatched at simply sitting down at a piano (L.V.B.) or church organ (J.S.B.) and improvising for hours, playing around with themes they’d heard on the street that day (L.V.B.), a bird’s song (L.V.B.), the never-repeating melodic patterns of clanging church bells, etc. Listening to Bright Mississippi I picture city traffic and car horns and people hollering between apartment buildings changing, like with Beethoven, into secret representations. Same difference.

Following this topic, allow me to share some recommendations, (all owned by WTD Library):

Beethoven, the Universal Composer by Edmund Morris [Book]
Cannonball Adderley Live In '63 [DVD]
Jazz Anecdotes by Bill Crow [Book]
Oscar Peterson Live in '63, '63 & '65 [DVD]
Lionel Hampton Live in '58 [DVD]

I'd like to suggest even more vehemently for any jazz enthusiast to track down a film called Straight, No Chaser, directed by Charlotte Zwerin. I've never seen a better peek into the world of the mad genius himself, Thelonious Sphere Monk.


Jeff said...

I've never thought of Bach or Beethoven as improvisers. In my mind, they labor over compositions by candle or gas light only to reveal them - well rehearsed - in concert halls. Conversely, improvisation seems a standard part of jazz and a requirement for any serious player. Most jazz standards seem to have a structure that lends itself to improvisation. I think of them as having shorter themes that can be repeated many times emphasizing different instruments. They also "swing" - giving players the ability to play and flex a bit around the beat and with the tempo. By contrast, I think of most classical pieces having longer, more deliberate themes that are more structured and more, well, orchestrated. Even if you're talking about an arrangement that is just for an organ, I can't imagine Bach playing behind the beat or skipping notes and passages like Monk.

So, obviously I have something to learn. Thanks for making me aware of improvisation in classical music. I'll have to check out some of your recommendations.

Casey said...

Bach and Beethoven were widely known as improvisational marvels at the keyboard. Indeed, many themes emerge during improvisation. Bach was known to sit at the giant church organ and improvise for six hours or more. Beethoven thrilled several royal courts at exhibitions (the name recital not coming along till Liszt) which involved long improvisations on themes made up by someone in the crowd. I see this as not too different than the Notorious B.I.G. freestyling on themes shouted out by concertgoers.