Though initially misunderstood, Thelonious Monk came to be regarded as one of the key figures in the evolution of jazz music in the 1950’s to 70’s, even appearing on the cover of Time magazine.
Undoubtedly a maverick pioneer, his profound influence remains a bright flame, his compositions an important continuing resource in the jazz repertoire.
Monk’s pianistic approach was rooted in the stride style of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. Building on that foundation he embraced modes, whole tones, clusters and polytonality. It is perhaps no surprise that his music took its time to catch on, but his virtuosic playing and unique musical personality ultimately made him a difficult genius to ignore.
Monk’s body of work is an unlikely candidate for study at intermediate level, but renowned jazz pianist, composer and arranger Ronnie Mathews has risen to an improbable challenge in producing a slim and accessible collection of 14 intermediate piano solos, published Stateside some years ago but only recently clearing licensing for release here in the UK…
14 Monk Classics
From Monk’s significant output, Mathews has narrowed down his selection to the following enduring gems:
- Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are (Bolivar Blues)
- Boo Boo’s Birthday
- Brilliant Corners
- Criss Cross
- Off Minor
- ‘Round Midnight
- Ruby, My Dear
- San Francisco Holiday (Worry Later)
- Well You Needn’t (It’s Over Now)
Commenting on his arrangements, Mathews tells us,
Mathews has certainly done a stellar job of preserving the essence of Monk’s style and writing here. The arrangements themselves would suit players at late intermediate level, around UK Grades 5-6.
They would particularly suit those who have worked through the excellent ABRSM Jazz Piano syllabus, and who want to dig deeper into this repertoire, leveraging their understanding of jazz improvisation, modes and chord progressions.
Mathews notes that some of the larger chords (of which there are many) need to be spread or “rolled”, and suggests that the cadenza-type passages in smaller print are “optional, but desired”.
Hal Leonard’s 40-page publication has an attractive presentation, with an iconic image of the artist on the front (gloss, card) cover.
Within, the book begins with a full page (and very useful) biography of Monk, followed by a contents page and brief performance notes section. The scores take up the lion’s share of the book.
These are spaciously presented with clear, nicely engraved notation. Each tune is afforded between one to three pages, the majority receiving a double-page spread.
It is immediately obvious that these are short and relatively simple arrangements rather than fuller transcriptions. And it becomes equally clear that they retain the hallmark of Monk despite that.
Jazz chord notation is included throughout, positioned above the fully scored transcriptions, and opening the door for further exploration, elaboration and musical discovery. Jazz pianists who are ready to explore this music will welcome the opportunity to delve further into its harmonic complexities and personally expand on the improvisational potential that Monk’s tunes offer.
Fingering suggestions are not included, which perhaps makes sense in the context of Monk’s idiosyncratic style, and the articulation which underpins a stylistic performance of this music.
To the rear of the book we find a Discography of Monk Performances and a short note about the arranger.
Any serious enthusiast of jazz piano will inevitably encounter the music of Thelonious Monk. As Mathews says,
“Monk had a profound influence on jazz from the late forties onward… His music will continue to delight and challenge every serious jazz musician in decades to come.”
The complexity of Monk’s musical language can seem impenetrable to the newcomer, and certainly seems beyond the limits of the intermediate pianist. That Mathews has produced so helpful and effective an introduction is praiseworthy indeed.
When it comes to discovering Monk’s unique voice at the piano, Mathews has surely provided the most authentic but approachable introduction I’ve seen. Tremendous stuff!
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