Monkish habits

Jazz byRichard Cook

Sooner or later every jazz musician has a go at Thelonious Monk. After Ellington, he remains the most coveted of jazz composers, his book of tunes turning up in countless situations. It is a baffling oeuvre, a strange language that seemed to come out of nowhere. Though Monk was one of the architects of bebop, he hardly made any records in the bop era and thereafter lived an idiosyncratic, outsider's life. The author of titles such as "Brake's Sake", "Well You Needn't" and "Shuffle Boil", with their staggering rhythms, knotted structures and bitten-off melodies, was clearly no Tin Pan Alley cat.

Monk's music has become a kind of test paper for performers, and there are almost as many ways of playing him as there are players. Some take a respectful canter through themes that are quite problematic enough without gilding intricacies which have resulted in many a pratfall. Others seem to feel that they have to out-Monk Monk, and make his twisty ideas into some sort of freak show. The paradox of this strange man emerges in his ballads: while he could come up with some of the most difficult stuff jazz has ever heard, "Crepuscule with Nellie", "Ruby My Dear" and the evergreen "Round Midnight" are among the loveliest reflections in the music.

Wynton Marsalis, that renowned guardian of the tradition, takes his turn on Standard Time Vol 4: Marsalis plays Monk (Columbia), 14 interpretations by his band as it stood five years ago (the trumpeter reputedly goes into the studio so often that Columbia now has a considerable backlog of albums to release). Marsalis plays Monk with his customary shoulder-shrug candour: you either get what I do or you don't, he seems to say, which might equally be applied to the composer, too. Yet this doesn't seem like a vintage session from an undeniably talented man. There's far too much space for his sidemen, who are more like second-string disciples than assertive voices in their own right. Steve Epstein's production grants a chamber-music feel, which might be in keeping with the notion of a repertory record but which takes all the sting out of the improvising.

Typically, Marsalis picked some of the toughest Monk tunes in the canon, such as "Brilliant Corners" and "Four in One", and the smooth accuracy of the playing tends to underscore the impression of jazz as athletics rather than art. When Wynton gets some clear space of his own, his playing has a virtuoso's bite and elan. He entirely misses the fun in the music, though. Monk is tough to play for laughs, but there's a strain of humour in him that Marsalis hasn't really puzzled out.

Altogether brighter, wittier and more warming is Green Chimneys (RCA Victor), headed by the guitarist and long-time Monk fan Andy Summers. If he seems stuck with the inescapable tag of ex-Policeman, Summers can point to a fine and credible list of records he's made since leaving the 1980s supergroup, and this is his most convincing essay on jazz material to date. He thinks up strong and varied settings for each of the 13 pieces, from the peculiar withered hoedown of "Light Blue" to the shimmering sound of "Ugly Beauty", and he has a splendid cast of cronies on hand: the cellist Hank Roberts, the trumpeter Walt Fowler and the drummer Peter Erskine. Summers starts from a point of affection, rather than respect, and this lets him get lots of juice out of a theme such as "Hackensack", which Marsalis treats too daintily. Elsewhere he is more deferential: Sting, who comes in to sing on "Round Midnight", could have used a little of the distance that Summers puts between himself and the tune. There have been times lately when I've felt that Monk's music had just about been done to death by now. A record such as this comes as close as any to bringing him back to life.

This article first appeared in the 14 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kosovo: a rich and comfortable war