Anthony Braxton said of Paul Desmond that you could practically hear him thinking way ahead of the music, and that's certainly true, despite Desmond's comparatively staid style. Given that, then, Thelonius Monk wasn't just ahead of the curve, he looked down on the Earth from Mars, a gent so advanced that he remains enigmatic and paradigmatic even now…and will continue to occupy that enviable position for another two centuries at least.
Oddly enough, the explanation is simple: Thelonius never ever EVER compromised. To the average humanoid, beaten up every day at work, at home, and in the society, this is an incomprehensible situation, a way of life as difficult to make sense of as muons, gluons, and quark strangeness, which, appropriately, embody the fractal improv Monk used so fluently. The Naxos label, which earlier issued mindbloiwng box sets of rare TV broadcasts of jazz from decades past, has now commenced a reissue of the exceedingly humanizing Masters of American Music jazz series first sold in the 80s and 90s.
Doing away with critics, an overview by famed musicians (here: Ben Riley, Randy Weston, etc.) and others is given in lieu, an excellent move. But what's crucial is seeing Monk not only play but also engaged in normal daytime activity, walking around with that self-possessed glow he had. Playing, the man was 10,001% completely wrapped up in aesthetics; away from the piano, he possessed supernatural calm underwritten by a leashed energy that emerged as soon as he got behind a keyboard.
More than one modern lion—Corea, Jarrett, and so on (even Bill Evans, if you listen to Monk's balladic side)—reflects Thelonius' gigantic influence brilliantly, but to see the master at work right before your eyes, this is a privilege beyond compare...not to mention the perfect vehicle for understanding his genius. One of the truest musical anarchists in America's history, the composer-player's enduring regard stems from the fact that he was a living, breathing, walking artistic statement…and, truth be told, a zen master.
As to the production itself: wonderful. The editing is letter perfect, the pace unhurried while wasting not a second, and the entire narrative and flow easy, informative, and warm.
For the rest of the series, see the reviews for Billy Holiday (here), Charlie Parker (here), and the overview The Story of Jazz (here). More are on the way next year: Coltrane, Basie, Armstrong, and Sarah Vaughn.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
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