Thelonious Monk - "Brilliant Corners"


Sleeve notes by Orrin Keepnews.


Blue Bolivar Blues; Pannonica; (October 9, 1956 - N.Y.)

Brilliant Corners; (October 15, 1956 - N.Y.)

Ernie Henry - alto. Sonny Rollins - tenor. Thelonious Monk - piano & celeste. Oscar Pettiford - bass. Max Roach - drums.

Bemsha Swing; I Surrender Dear (solo); (December 7, 1956 - N.Y.)

Clark Terry - trumpet. Sonny Rollins - tenor. Thelonious Monk - piano. Paul Chambers - bass. Max Roach - drums.




Thelonious Monk remains among the most challenging, provocative and disturbing figures in modern music. He has consistently been described in such terms for as long as he has been on the jazz scene - which is precisely as long as there has been modern jazz, for Monk of course was one of the principal molders of the new jazz. He will very probably continue to be described this way. For Monk's music is decidedly not designed for casual listening. Everything he writes and plays is jazz into which an important creative talent has put more than a little of himself. Thus, inevitably, Monk and his music demand the most difficult thing any artist can require of his audience - attention.


Thelonious Monk's music can also be among the most rewarding in modern jazz. And it is that (to those who will listen) for exactly the same reasons that it challenges, disturbs and demands: because Monk is himself. What he offers is not smooth, public relations conscious artifice or surface skills, but merely the music that is in him and that he is impelled to bring forth. There are men who can bend and shape themselves and their work (perhaps to fit current public taste, perhaps to suit the aims of a stronger artistic personality). There are others whose natural, undiluted self expression manages to strike a responsive chord in lots of souls, or at least seems to. Finally there are those non-benders and non-conformers who don't happen to seem easy to understand. Among these is Monk, and for such men the basic audience can consist only of those who are willing to try a bit to grasp the stimulating, intensely rewarding message that is being sent out.


These comments are not intended as any sort of fairly clever reverse-twist psychology (you know: "only very hip people, like me and like you who are reading these notes, can really dig Thelonious"). On the contrary, we at Riverside feel very strongly that the whole emphasis on the exceedingly far-out and 'mysterious' nature of Monk's music has been seriously overdone in past years, so that many who would have found themselves quite willing (and able) to listen were frightened away in advance. This is Thelonious' third album for this label; the first two were entirely made up of standard tunes, played with trio instrumentation. This was fully deliberate, a plot to seduce non-followers of Monk into giving him a hearing. There was no musical compromise; but there was at least the handle of a familiar melody to begin with.


Those two previous albums - as reviewers, musicians and others with no special need to flatter Monk or us have noted - were outstanding, articulate efforts. But the present LP is something else again. This is Thelonious at work on matters much more difficult (and potentially even more rewarding): this is Monk writing, in his own highly personal way, for five instrumental voices. It is Monk expressing himself by means of the unorthodox construction, approach, and phrasing that is uniquely his, and that has by now matured into a style possessing great depth, wit and strength.


(The one exception here, a solo treatment of the standard I Surrender, Dear in a compellingly moody vein, came about because Monk felt like it and felt it was a change of pace that would fit in. It did.)


It should be noted at about this point that Monk's music is not only not the easiest listening, it is also not easy to play. Musicians could save themselves a lot of trouble by not recording with Monk - but it's a form of trouble that a great many of the best men have long considered a privilege (as well as an education).


Sonny Rollins is a wonderfully inventive, strong-toned tenor man who has already made a considerable impact on the jazz public and on fellow musicians, who is clearly going on to a position of even greater importance. Ernie Henry worked in Monk's quartet during 1956, and then took over Phil Woods' alto chair in Dizzy Gillespie's big band; he is a fluid, leaping, non-derivative stylist who has appeared on two previous Riverside LP's and whom we are betting on for near-future stardom. Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach no longer need fancy descriptive adjectives: by now surely their names alone tell the story. When Henry and Pettiford were unavailable for the final date, the replacements were of top calibre: Clark Terry (a stand out with Duke Ellington since 1951 and termed, by Leonard Feather, "one of the most original trumpet players in contemporary jazz") and Paul Chambers, currently with Miles Davis and among the very finest of the newer bassists.


These men worked hard. They struggled and concentrated and shook their heads over some passages with those half-smiles that mean; "Hard? this is impossible!" For the original compositions on this date represent Monk at his most inventive and therefore (to repeat myself) at his most challenging. Brilliant Corners, with its uneven meter and its tempo changes, is undoubtedly the real back-breaker, but this doesn't mean that the others are simple: Pannonica, which I'd describe as a near-ballad with guts; the blues, which has lots of extended blowing room (and don't neglect to dig the several things Monk is doing behind the horns): and Bemsha Swing, only one of the four originals not specifically prepared for this record date - Thelonious wrote it several years ago, with drummer Denzil Best, and has recorded it twice previously, but comparison will show that it hasn't remained static during that time.


(A note on the odd title of the blues: it is merely an attempt to set down phonetically the pronunciation Monk insisted on as most fitting for what might most simply be called Blue Bolivar Blues.)


These musicians worked hard, also, because Monk's creativity never stands still: during a preliminary run through of a number, between 'takes' or even during one, changes of phrasing or of detail will evolve, as a constant fusion of arrangement and improvisation keeps taking place. Sometimes even instrumentation gets altered a bit. Thelonious came across a celeste in the studio, decided it would go well in Pannonica, and so set it up at right angles to the piano to be able to play celeste with the right hand, piano with the left, during part of this number. Similarly, it was an impromptu bit of experimentation that resulted in Max Roach's 'doubling' on tympany and drums through Bemsha Swing, in most unorthodox and effective fashion.


And Monk is a hard task-master at a recording session, a perfectionist ("I've never been satisfied with one of my records yet," he says, and means it) who knows just how he wants each note bent and phrased and who drives the others as hard as he drives himself - which, in an abstract sense, is possibly a little unfair of him.


In the end, it wasn't "impossible" - merely far from easy, and in the end everyone else was satisfied and Monk probably almost satisfied. And the final results are obviously very much worth having accomplished and (to return to the first theme of these comments) worth paying attention to.


- Orrin Keepnews.