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Columns > Patrick Buzby

Published: 2006/08/19
by Pat Buzby

Monk Underground

Like many people born in the 70s, I might not have listened to jazz if there wasnt a lot of it around that sounded like rock. Thinking about it a bit recently, though, I realized that this applies to some things that werent fusion.
Due to a few twists of fate (lots of Monk cuts on the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, a few Monk albums at the library), I spent a fair amount of time listening to Thelonious Monk when I got started with jazz. Like most other guys who caught my attention at that point (Ornette and Coltrane, to name two), Monk had a certain proto-rock element in his attitude, and not only because he had a healthy appetite for the blues. He was individual and let you know it every second, and he seldom let either an original or a standard go by without slipping in a sarcastic poke at authority.
Recently, Ive paid some attention to Monks 60s stint on Columbia. Like a handful of the subsequent rockers who managed to mix some catchiness with their non-conformity, Monk found rewards (_Time_ covers, steady live work), and one was the chance to join the label of Miles and Brubeck. Like Miles, he also encountered the studio discipline and editors scissors of Teo Macero, although Teos Monk duties largely involved snipping away bass solos (which, for better or worse, reappear on the current crop of CD reissues). Monk didnt share Miless contempt for comfort zones, though, and so appreciating these 60s releases, almost all featuring his quartet with saxophonist Charlie Rouse plus rhythm, means getting comfortable with multiple variations on familiar themes perhaps a true indicator of being a jazz fan rather than a rock fan (at least, a rock fan who sticks with studio albums rather than trying to build up a complete Dead or Phish tape archive).
Perhaps the closest thing to a standout in Monks Columbia work is Underground. This title has as many 1968 resonances as the contemporaneous Miles In The Sky, but while Miless artwork affirms the Sgt. Pepper connection, Columbia was apparently trying to hit multiple generations with one stone with its novelty cover photo situating Monk underground in a World War Two setting. Theres no hippie outreach in the music, but, with a higher total of new Monk originals (four) than any other 60s album, it includes the final attempts from Monk to create something new.
After a trio romp through the old favorite Thelonious, the first new song, Ugly Beauty, arrives. With its melody line starting with a descending, resigned figure before landing on a major seventh in a higher key on its way to a happier conclusion, this song captures the mood of Monk at the end of the line. The off-center exuberance of Boo Boos Birthday celebrates domesticity at a time when both jazz and rock were tearing down the walls, rebelling against the rebellion in a manner not unlike post-motorcycle crash Dylan. And although the other two new pieces, Raise Four and Green Chimneys, sound like they may have not required so much effort, they have the spiky blues which only Monk could evoke, and could fill a few of the jam session slots now more often occupied by the old Monk chestnut Straight, No Chaser.
Many critics of Columbia-era Monk focus on Rouse. Monks quartets relied on saxophone to counter-balance the leaders limited but distinctive style the questing Coltrane, the rapid-fire Johnny Griffin. Compared to these predecessors, Rouse was short on revelatory offerings. On Underground, Rouse sounds at times almost as befuddled by the new tunes (the only ones where he appears) as we might have been, not getting far past a single set of repeated phrases in his Ugly Beauty solo. However, hes right in the mood for Boo Boos Birthday and Green Chimneys, the straightforward foil to the always off-center Monk. Appreciating later Monk means appreciating Rouse, the pro who was always set to do his job over Monks steady-swinging rhythm sections.
Ive gone months, sometimes more, without listening to much Monk since those early days encountering jazz. However, theres enough detail in that eccentric music to make it able to stand up to years of analysis. On the surface, the title conceit of Underground seems strained. Scratch a bit deeper, though, and it seems as justified from Monk as it would ever be from anyone.

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