Tuesday, August 23, 2016

My Early Jazz Education 4: Thelonius Sphere Monk

And then there’s Thelonius Sphere Monk. The album was Thelonious Monk Big Band and Quartet in Concert. I don’t know how I came across that album, but it stunned me, though it took some getting used to. At that point Maynard Ferguson’s early 1960s band was my idea of a big band. Monk’s band, not his usual performance context, wasn’t at all like that. Not that big, nor that brassy. And, of course it was Monk. Here’s the personnel:

Arranger: Hall Overton
Bass: Butch Warren
Alto Saxophone, Clarinet: Phil Woods
Tenor Saxophone: Charlie Rouse
Baritone Saxophone, Bass Clarinet, Clarinet: Gene Allen
Soprano Saxophone: Steve Lacy
Trumpet: Nick Travis
Trombone: Eddie Bert
Cornet: Thad Jones

Let’s listen to “Bye-Ya,” a Monk original:

Notice that the cut is 11:24, longer than anything I’d heard. The length is in the solos. The tune is a standard AABA tune. But, upon closer listening, not so standard. To a first approximation the harmony’s pretty static, with little excursions at the end of each 8 bar phrase. We don’t have a strong sense of tonal center, which makes this pretty advanced for its time.

Which Monk was. Advanced. Monk is generally classed with bebop. He worked with a lot of boppers, and he emerged when bop did. But he was halfway to 1960s modal music and mid-1960s “out” music.

“Epistrophy” is similar, but even hipper:

This is a short version (no solos), used as a theme song. Listen closely to Monk’s left hand at 1:32; he’s playing simple ascending triplet figures. We’ll get back to them in a second.

It too is AABA. The A section used a simple 2-bar riff repeated four times, with subtle variations. The B section (aka the bridge) has a more developed melody. So, melodically, it’s riffs in the A section against an actual melody in the B.

Harmonically, like “Bye-Ya,” the tonal center is weak. Now, listen closely to the A section, which is two closely related 2-chord vamps. We’ve got D-flat 7 to D7 for four bars, and then E-flat 7 to E7 for four bars. Like so:

Db7 D7|Db7 D7|Db7 D7|Db7 D7|Eb7 E7|Eb7 E7|Eb7 E7|Eb7 E7|

So, do whatever makes sense over Db D7 for four bars, and then take it up half a step for the next four. That’s the structure you’ve got work with. It’s either little or nothing, or very subtle, depending on your skill.

The standard thing would be simply to repeat that. But that’s not what Monk does. He reverses the two vamps, like so:

Eb7 E7|Eb7 E7|Eb7 E7|Eb7 E7|Db7 D7|Db7 D7|Db7 D7|Db7 D7|

He’s in effect divided the A section into two four-bar sections. Let’s call them AD (for the Db-D), and AE (for the Eb-E). Put them together and here’s what we’ve got:


That’s very interesting. What’s he do in the bridge? We’ve got four bars of F-sharp 7 (call it B1), then we go to B7 and move up chromatically (call it B2) to meet the Eb-E vamp of the second A section. So:

AD AE | AE AD | B1 B2 | AE AD ||

This is simple, and very hip. It’s genius.

Here’s an older version:

The tempo’s slower. Listen to the left hand at the beginning. There’s that triplet figure in the bass. We’ve got Milk Jackson on vibes.

Here’s a live version from 1963 in Japan. We’ve Charlie Rouse on tenor, Butch Warren on bass and Charlie Dunlop on drums; these guys played with Monk for years.

Monk starts soloing at about 2:31. Watch him closely. Look at his hands, how he holds his fingers straight. Listen to how percussive he his, how spikey his lines are. He’s not into the linear virtuosity that was typical of bebop. He’s doing something else. Watch how he moves his elbows, his body (e.g. at 2:58 and following, brilliant figures at 3:51 and following). He paraphrases the melody at 4:08 and following; but he’s not really finishing out the tune no matter what it sounds like. We’re back at the head at 4:49 with Rouse coming in on the head. Listen to Monk’s left hand. He’s playing an eighth-note figure that’s reminiscent of the triplet figure in the previous versions. At 5:30 we get the same left hand triplet figure that I pointed out in the big band version (recorded a year later).

Here’s a blues, though it hardly sounds like it. But count it out; 12 bars, you’ll see, “Mysterioso”:

We start out with just Monk. The melody is eighth notes all the way, except for a held note at the end. But we’ve got these wide intervals (6ths) that make it sound like we’ve got two melodies going on simultaneously, one staggered a half beat behind the other. We hear the lower line as the melody, and the upper line as an embellishment.

The ensemble enters at 0:43. What’s Hall Overton (the arranger) do? He splits that top line between Monk and the ensemble (most likely saxes). Monk plays the bottom note, the one in the first half of each beat; and the ensemble gets the upper note, in the second half of each beat. We do that for a chorus and then we move into the first solo, at 1:15, which now sounds more recognizably bluesy. Sounds like Phil Woods on alto; Monk drops out for most of the solo (starting at about 2:50). It’s just alto, drums, and bass. Monk enters at about 5:24, paraphrasing the melody – Monk always like to use the melody in improvising, rather than just throwing it away. Listen to the single-note right hand figures starting at 6:11, how they move all over the place. Listen to the tremolos at 7:22, classic old-time riffs; and then back to the single-note melodies with the pointillist spread. Monk returns to the head at 8:26. The ensemble enters at 9:00 to finish it out.

Now, Monk playing solo piano on “one of those old time good ones,” as Louis Armstrong liked to say, “When It’s Darkness on the Delta”:

Rather than comment on it, I’ll simply give you some different versions of the same song. Here’s 1930s jazz:

This is a nostalgic piece about Good Old Southland, “darkies” included. Notice the ridiculous figures starting at 2:43; pure cornball and sugar syrup. Monk takes the sentimentality out of the tune.

Lizzie Miles takes in a different direction (and there’s no mention of darkies):

This woman can sang! I’m guessing Monk would have preferred this version.

Here’s a recent version for barbershop quartet (wait for it at 1:00):

Notice that they don’t sing about darkies either. You can’t do that in the 21st century. Listen to them at 2:17; they speed up and get sharp at the same time. They arrive on pitch at 2:25. Is this a standard barbershop effect, does anyone know?

These old songs, they do get around.

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Here's an interesting list of Ten Monk Tunes You Need to Know, with nice YouTube videos for each.


  1. Milk Jackson: ha ha ha


    it;s difficult to get these notes by ear - they slide by half a step as you say and if you have an out of tune instrument you simply can't get it!

    do you have a source of transcription

  2. "do you have a source of transcription" What are you looking for? Try googling it, chances are someone has something for you. There's a lot of stuff out there.