Friday, April 18, 2008

SDP Jazz Note: Thelonious Monk & Johnny Griffin

MonkstampIf Thelonious Monk dropped a penny into a coffee can, you could tell by the sound it made that it was Monk that dropped it. Or at least that it was someone who was hanging around Monk. When Monk played the piano, every note seemed slightly or more than slightly odd. A sax or a trumpet playing behind him takes on the same quality. In a Monk composition, when you hear it for the first time, every change seems all wrong. Each melodic line seems to start in the wrong place and end too soon or too late. It seems like you have entered a twilight zone where the geometry is non-Euclidean and the flavors are all new. And yet, if you keep listening, you notice that the echoes in the room are pure juke joint piano, and every thread in the musical tapestry spools back into the traditions of African-American music. This explains why those with a seasoned ear for jazz often think that Monk's music was perfect, while those hearing it for the first time wonder if he could play the piano at all.

It is proof enough of his genius that jazz musicians have found his compositions to be persistently fascinating. "Round Midnight," and "Straight, No Chaser" are among the most frequently covered standards. It is true that a lot of jazz men have been perplexed by his work, especially when they were working with him. But there has been a lot of good pudding.

MonkinactionOne place to start is Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk. The title is deceptive. Blakey's Jazz Messengers wasn't a combo, it was a jazz school. One brilliant jazzman after another drifted in and out, while Blakey's drum rhythm kept up the institution. This disc represents Monk 101. Five of the six pieces are Monk standards. One is a Johnny Griffin composition. Griffin is one of the lesser immortals in the jazz pantheon. But he is one of my favorites. He played tenor sax on this session.

Griffin's tenor can also be heard on two lesser known albums recorded live at the Five Spot Cafe. Misterioso, and Thelonious Monk in Action, document these performances. Both are available for a handful of quarters at eMusic. Griffin's ability to enter and master Monk's logic is awesome. This is what jazz is all about: the marriage of intelligence and passion in the realm of melody.


  1. Griffin's playing on the two Riverside albums of the Five Spot sessions is often underrated in favor of Coltrane's work with Monk. Each had his own uniquely personal approach to interpreting Monk's music, to be sure, but Griffin's playing on these sessions is refreshingly humorous, technically breathtaking, and constantly inventive. Moreover, the "field holler" breaths that he takes after oblique phrases that probably caught even him by surprise are unique. Rest in peace, Little Giant.

  2. I, too, have always cherished those albums of Monk with Johnny Griffin, ever since I found them in the college bookstore around 1965. And I understand that BOTH albums are from sets they played on the SAME NIGHT at the Five Spot! I saw Monk live at the first Pittsburgh Jazz Festival in '64. He left the stage grinning and, spontaneously, twirling his hat (the one on MONK'S DREAM) around in circles on his finger to the delight of the audience. I never heard of him doing that elsewhere. Never got to see Griffin live, but I have a wonderful video tape of him at the Village Vanguard.