Saturday, March 12, 2016

Reading that makes me play

I just finished reading a biography of Thelonious Monk by Robin Kelley, a very serious and enlightening look at one of the greatest jazz artists who ever lived who I didn’t know was one of the greatest jazz artists who ever lived. I say that because, of course, anybody who knows anything about jazz knows about Monk, but for me, he was just one of those guys who wasn’t worth approaching. I suppose I was “contaminated” by reading an article about the great pianist Dick Hyman (who I do respect and admire) who said something in a Wall Street Journal piece like, “I don’t appreciate Monk. His music doesn’t sound right and I think most of the time he’s just hitting wrong notes.” That kind of embodied how I felt and I didn’t think I was missing anything by giving Monk’s music short shrift.

The subtitle says it all.
As I was reading Mr. Kelley’s book, however, some things about Monk started to make sense. I started to see what kind of person he was and how that could lead to him being ignored, or overlooked, or even ridiculed. Then too, Mr. Kelley does a great job of illustrating the formulation and evolution of a lot of Monk’s work, and it caused me to revisit some of the tunes. And whaddaya know? Here I am almost ten years down the beginner’s jazz blog road, and things I never understood started making sense.

I can’t really cite specific examples but I can say this, when I read about a song and then the next day pulled out the lead sheet and started to play it, suddenly Monk seemed not only approachable, it seemed like playing his music was helping me achieve things I could not before that point. It’s hard to put clearly, but, I started to see how Monk is more or less the next level I need to go to. But what that really means is, if you can play Monk on Monk’s level, I started to feel like I could probably play anything.

Haven't found any Miles Davis beer yet. I'll buy it and drink it if I do.
Now, I’m not suggesting that if I work out all the changes to Epistrophy, I’ll be able to zing my way through Ellington, or Coltrane, or Hancock, or anybody. What I’m saying is, Epistrophy is harder to play, harder to understand musically, and harder to make sound good than just any old song, so if you reach the pinnacle on Epistrophy, you must be doing something right.

Ruby, My Dear is a good example. Here’s a song that once upon a time, I could play pretty decently in an ensemble format. I could solo over the changes and make it sound Monkish, and I knew what the song was making me do harmonically to make it sound good. Now that I’m playing that song in solo piano format from a book of Monk transcriptions, I’m finding what I learned before did not much prepare me for what I’m playing now. Again, it’s very hard to put into words.

The long and short of it is, Kelley’s biography isn’t supposed to make you better piano player, but in my case, that’s exactly what it has done. It’s broadening my musical interest and bringing me back to vast swaths of the jazz landscape that I’ve never bothered to visit. I truly believe that learning to play Monk tunes is going to help me play piano more and better.  We’ll see.

Of course, having finished the book (check out my review on Amazon) and being now embarked on reading Miles Davis’ autobiography, I may feel different as I progress through that. Then again, I can and do play a host of Miles tunes, whereas I don’t have one from Monk that I can call my own. Yet. That and the fact the Miles can’t write like Mr. Kelley can may well leave my Monkish attentions unaffected. Again, we’ll see.

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