964 - Thelonious Monk 'Brilliant Corners' (1957)

My Rating: 2.40 out of 5
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die:
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection: X

Chart Peak (UK/US): --/--

Favourite Tracks: Brilliant Corners, Pannonica
Least-Favourite Track: Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are

I just worked out that at my current rate of progress I shall be finishing this blog on 2 August 2040 (it'll be a Thursday in case you were planning anything). As I'll be 75 by then there's a strong possibility that I'll be a little bit senile, a little bit deaf and/or a little bit dead - all conditions which may well improve my writing, though it might just be simpler to try & speed things up a bit. So in an effort to overcome my suffocating sense of slothfulness & to avoid having to continue writing this from the after-life I hereby decree that I shall be listening to 7 albums in 7 days. Starting with this one.

The album opens with title track Brilliant Corners and from the opening piano intro it's hard not to think of Les Dawson. Or perhaps someone trying to play piano whilst wearing boxing gloves. Who's had a bit too much to drink. You get the picture.. Anyone unfamiliar with Monk must think the same because on first listen he sounds like someone who's just not very good at playing piano. Then the rest of the group join in, all twisted horns & stuttering rhythms like some second-rate Salvation Army band & you begin to wonder whether Napalm Death might not be a little easier on the ear. But after a minute or so, the tempo suddenly picks up & the whole thing starts to swing; not traditional swing but like some twisted swing from an alternate universe. The song lurches around, stopping, starting, speeding up & slowing down & yet somehow the whole things hangs together. Just. And out of all that chaos you end up emerging with something rather beautiful.

By contrast track two Ba-Lue Bolivar...(etc) is a skanky blues of the sort that you'd find from some burlesque strip club band - I half expected Tom Waits (circa 1974) to start growling lyrics over the top & it's a shame that he doesn't really as with a running time of over 13 minutes even the charm of Monk's solos began to fade. I'm not sure that the simplicity of the blues provides enough scope for someone like Monk anyway, though if I said that at a jazz convention I'd be dragged out to the car park for a good kicking.

In an effort to save myself from angry mobs of hipsters (not that I've ever seen a mob of hipsters, or even a lone hipster for that matter, but I'm not taking any chances) I should point out that there's an awful lot to like about this album. Four of the five songs are Monk original compositions (& it's worth emphasising the word 'original' there). And as any self-respecting jazzer will tell you, saying Monk is a bit rubbish at piano is like saying that Picasso wasn't much cop at painting. Their art is abstract & abstraction requires you to abandon some of your preconceived notions. The problem is that we're all conditioned to think that hitting bum notes=bad player, so while many people might appreciate Monk's innovative style after hearing one track in islolation, I wonder whether a whole album's worth might be too much for all but the most ardent jazz fans.


Yoknapatawpha Kid said...

Dear Allen,

Nice entry on Monk! I must say, this is an ambitious endeavor, and you have my blessings!

My name is Peter Ricci, and I am a college and writer who is currently contributing to an upstart online magazine called ‘Too Shy to Stop,’ which focuses on culture and the arts.

I came across your entry, as it would turn out, while conducting research for an essay on Monk! I specifically look at the history and characteristics behind Monk, and argue that he personified all of the grandest traditions of jazz as an American art form.

So, check it out here (http://tooshytostop.wordpress.com/2008/11/18/the-obtuse-brilliance-of-thelonious-monk/) and leave a comment! I think you’ll enjoy it, and I always love to read input from readers.


Peter Ricci

Anonymous said...

I'm not anything resembling an "ardent jazz fan" (but I am a hipster) and I love Monk. To my ear, Brilliant Corners never gets old (this is true of a lot of his work).

I've never really felt that Monk was avant-garde. That implies a sort of self-conscious pretension, which Monk lacked (unlike a lot of free-jazzers). Whats amazing to me is that even when he was going really far out, the music still sounded natural (to me at least).


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