Thelonious Monk = Christopher Walken

Monk’s work is a great way to evaluate artists, whether those who’ve been around forever, or are new; covers, in and of themselves, are great way to compare players (or maybe I’m too German for my own good, looking for something akin to a control group to use in my comparisons), and in my mind Monk’s covers are the best: they’re so idiosyncratic they instantly highlight a player’s central tendencies: how do they interpret a melody line or lack thereof, or a near complete disregard of key signature (e.g., “Monk’s Dream” is ostensibly in F, but there’s so many accidentals they may as well have put Fuck It where the key signature goes).

It’s not unlike comedians doing unusual impressions: everyone and their grandma does (or did, anyway) a Jimmy Stuart, or a Reagan, or a Clinton… and they all sound the same: they sound like Stuart, Reagan and Clinton. Those guys are easy.

Christopher Walken, on the other hand…though he is seemingly easy, isn’t:

He takes strange pauses between words, emphasizes odd, out-of-time syllables… and five seconds hearing any aspiring comedian will (nearly instantly) show you their flaws. (For the record, I like this guy the best.)

Monk’s work, to me, is the Christopher Walken of cover choices. 

So– ten covers of Monk’s work: Vijay Iyer’s and Eric Dolphy’s takes on “Epistrophy,” the Charles Lloyd quartet’s “Ruby, My Dear,” and “Monk’s Mood,” Jason Moran’s “Crepescule With Nellie,” Art Pepper’s, Dexter Gordon’s and Miles Davis’ versions of “Round Midnight,” and two live versions of “Straight, no Chaser” by Miles and company.

Charles Lloyd’s “Ruby My Dear,”– spacious and decadent, yet sparse and minimalist; Lloyd’s re-entry at 3:50 perhaps encapsulating his essence relating to the song– relaxed, considered, yet brisk, with breathy melodic runs over Monk’s “Is he what we’d now call Bipolar disordered or Schizophrenic?” melody….

Lloyd’s version of “Monk’s Mood” continues this… but seemingly more asymmetrically, as if he’s relaxed into it…? Both are seemingly in no hurry to resolve to the tonic (the ultimate test of someone covering Monk– how impatient are you to make the song make sense, i.e., hit the home tone, i.e., sound the notes the ear has heard the most often up to that point….).

Vijay Iyer’s “Epistrophy” is one of the few Monk covers that rivals T. Sphere M. in terms of idiosyncrasy… passionate and straightforward, yet somehow distracted, like a psych ward patient who’s convinced he’s got 99% of the math for cold fusion correct… just can’t get. that. other. one. percent…. The familiar D#/E/C/C# then D#/E/C/F# (transposed for tenor*), seemingly gently handled by Iyer… a great version….

Eric Dolphy, on Last Date, fires up his version of this on bass clarinet: ranting for a second, howling through the clarinet, then wobbling along… you can imagine him glancing at the rhythm section, which comes right in on cue, they then hitting the drippy melody, one not unlike the sonic version of a Dali painting….

Jason Moran’s “Crepuscule with Nellie,” vaguely-Guaraldi-ish-isms, especially at 4:52 with its (appropriately?) instant, jarring, stop, then gentle fade out….

Dexter Gordon and “‘Round Midnight…” he almost stomps in, huffily, at around 0:25, stating the melody so you get it… he then slows down, almost enjoying the melody by 0:49… somehow Dex loves to occasionally squat at (the tenor’s) C, then C#… eventually finding the F to relax you for a second…. Art Pepper’s version begins surprisingly subtly, with a volume swell of a symphony soon entering… truth be told, it’s a bit trite, re-hashing the melody, trading on your nostalgia without adding much… Pepper’s deft, yet nasal tone, bouncing up and down on the melody… not unlike a kid tromping happily and obliviously on an Cézanne (a print though, not the original)….

Miles Davis’ version of “‘Round Midnight” (the studio version, on ‘Round About Midnight), with its off-handed gesture of a melody in F minor– Miles and company trot out the expected melody at its normal 65-ish beats per minute: at 0:54, an irritated high-treble blare from Miles… this version seems “safer,” more delicate, than the below live version….

From the “comeback” performance in Newport in 1955… a hesitant/ gentle start with the melody over Monk’s comping… Miles squatting on (trumpet’s) F for a bit, seemingly hesitant, or afraid… or completely confident and just waiting, spider-like… flicks his fingers up to C, just to remind you “what melody we’re playing, Clyde… try and keep up…” getting more (obviously) confident as the piece rolls on, arpeggiating over the F at around 2:10… applause at around 3:00 for Monk to play over his baby….

“Straight, No Chaser,” Miles and Co., from Milestones…  an uncharacteristically-passionate and rapid opening solo from Miles… good for you, Mr. Davis– what pissed you off that day… what got through that thick hide of yours…? (Until Coltrane, at his most subdued, out-emotes you….)

My favorite cover is Dolphy’s “Epistrophy” (though I like them all or they wouldn’t be here): he seems to be in on the joke. Yes, there seems to be a “joke” (though not one that lessens the impact or importance of Monk’s work) to Monk’s work, and Dolphy seems to get it, and play with it.

Maybe it’s because I don’t quite get it, but I could listen for days.

Bottom line, I guess I could always use more Goddamn cowbell.

*Which makes no goddamn sense, yet somehow works as a melody.

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