8.25.2010

North of the Sunset


The first time I remember hearing the album 'Solo Monk' by Thelonious Monk, the rather well-known jazz pianist from the 50's and 60's, was in Joshua Tree National Park. During one good stint in the park in late April back in, oh, 2002 perhaps, my friend Greg and I spent most of our time drinking coffee and burning in the sun.

Our morning ritual, as I remember it, was to listen to most or all of the aforementioned album; it became a sort of refrain of sorts for the variety of currents that guided that sometimes austere, sometimes foundational trip to the desert. Despite the fact that we listened to it almost every day for three weeks, I think it was the texture more than the specifics of the music that sticks in my mind. Only later, after some hundreds more times listening to the album, have I realized the power that this man held and transmuted into sound via the piano.

The tunes on 'Solo Monk' pave some strange middle path: while I would hardly call them strictly 'straight ahead' in terms of Jazz style, neither are they dauntingly avante gard or harmonically unapproachable. Monk has a penchant for dissonance that verges on missed notes at times, but clearly isn't the latter. Instead, his chord voicings are uncanny in the most canny fashion, dissonant and yet incredibly consonant in terms of his approach to harmony.

I don't claim to have the knowledge to analyze, harmonically, some of the tropes found in Monk's playing; I do, however, know that what Monk typically plays is often somewhat 'outside' of normal harmony, especially in terms of his musical era. The intervals in some of his voicings, for instance, were rather 'innovative', to say the least and some are still 'challenging' to some of out perceptions of what sounds 'good'.

In any case, I rather wished to avoid analysis here due in part to the chance that it might expose my rather limited knowledge of music theory and harmony; inspiration comes in strange wavelengths and sometimes must be heeded despite the risk of translational errors. What I hear in this album these days is the 'undercurrent', Friedrich Nietzsche's 'primordial unity', the untempered art impulse tempered and translated by form, in this case musical harmony. Really a verbose way of saying that Monk's got 'it' and that I dig what 'it' is: somewhat simple vessels (musical forms) overflowing with something more intensely communicative and affecting than the actual tensions in the tunes could ever be, the savant coupled with the intuitiveness of genius. Art, of course, but allow me a further meditation on the subjective:

Blue sky and a white-hot sun; new love coupled with a complete loss of temporality; a storm; clouds moving swiftly in the dark, outlined by the moon; an abstract and elegant brutality in the motion and subsequent stillness of the air; a foolish yet pure naivete; the idea of an end, a death, a coda; beauty in the most rare and austere form, as difficult to substantiate as it is, in the words of Richard Brautigan, "...[to hold] a flower and a rock in the same hand...", and similarly damaged and gone as soon as an attempt is made to confront its reality of being...

...and yet its presence has ripples...

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