Thelonious Sphere Monk

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The jazz improvisers that have impacted my musical style the most have been (and continue to be) Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk. There are additional influences: Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Johnny Griffin, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and virtually every musician that had something unique to say,regardless of whether they played a horn or bass or drums.

That so few of my influences were pianists is perhaps not unusual. I hear and play much like a horn player, and bass and drums are always part of my internal dialogue, even when I play solo piano. Some have said that they  can 'hear' it, too.

While I'm not in agreement with critics who cite Monk as my main influence, I am willing to concede that his compositional style, and 'homemade' technique has had a lasting effect on the way I hear and play.

As with Rahsaan, a certain abandon permeates his music, along with a chaotic grace, all embellished by a self-effacing wit that marks his contribution to jazz as entirely, iconoclastically original. Monk had a distinctive 'taste' as did Miles and 'Trane, and it is that existential 'taste' that has influenced me.

I never copied his solos (or anyone else's) or intentionally studied his comping style or chordings. I just absorbed that 'taste' and that's what the critics hear, because it's like garlic or oregano; very identifiable (continued below)...


MORE FOR MONK - Jessica Williams, solo piano

  • Functional - mp3
  • Memories of You
  • Monk Funk
  • Everything Happens to Me
  • Out and Out Blues
  • Panonica - mp3
  • Blues Five Spot - mp3
  • Jackieing
  • Don't Take your Love from Me
  • Blue TM
  • Ghost of a Chance

Cover photo by Elaine Arcitem
Recorded in 2003 for Red and Blue Records
learn more - buy

More for Monk

In the Key of Monk

... And it's easier to write that a player is 'Monkish' (hate that word, don't you?) than to intelligently interrogate other salient features of an artist's work and then to translate those impressions into words that actually might describe something real.

The truth is that a musician playing a Monk tune sounds like Monk because Monk tunes sound like Monk tunes. They're authentic, genuine distillations of Monk's musical point of view, and they inevitably affect the course of improvisation that any musician might take playing them.

Thelonious Sphere Monk

I remember owning only two Monk records in earlier times; It's Monk's Time and Underground, both on Columbia. But they did their work. I began learning stride piano shortly after I heard the first of those two LPs, and, through osmosis, began actually to hear and understand Monk's chordal concept.

I never have learned any of his compositions by reading sheet-music. I just sat down and started playing, as it was already a part of me. Years later, a friend gave me four cassettes of Monk playing solo, with trios, with quartets and quintets. It all seeped in and stayed.

There was no work to do. Monk had done it all, and I had learned to hear it and smell it and taste it.

Unfortunately, I never got to meet him, or even see him play 'live.' The same friend that gave me the cassettes showed me a video of him; my strongest impression was that he had his own way of getting things done. Hand-over-hand, whole-tone scales, flat fingered hand positions, a very active left foot, a penchant for dancing during saxophone solos, a bearish clumsiness that somehow morphed into an aural impeccability.

His intransigent eccentricity caused him to be met with something less than enthusiasm by a sizable portion of the jazz world. But in 1964, he made the cover of Time Magazine. He even had a movie made about him.

His way of getting things done worked for him, and he had the courage to continue doing things his way while lots of critics (and more than a few musicians) shook their collective heads and agreed only that his music was 'inaccessible' or 'didn't swing.' Now we hear that he was 'ahead of his time,' not bothering to ask if we're behind ours.

That which many call eccentric genius is simply the admirable human quality of doing what we do best and doing it in the face of incredible odds, appearing eccentric or distracted because mundane matters and social customs carry little import when we are overcome by a passionate, personal vision.

When Albert Einstein presented his Special Theory of Relativity at Princeton, an adherent of his theory remarked to a colleague that the professor had just changed the way in which we perceive our Universe. The colleague reportedly exclaimed in horror, 'But the man doesn't wear socks!'

And in our now similarly conservative age, many still expect a gifted musician or artist to possess communication skills rivaling a politician, to adhere to the latest fashion, not to be too extravagantly original lest one person be offended or confused.

But it turns out that good art makes people happy, while great art often makes people mad.

And it is the great art that endures, long after the whining and wailing and gnashing of teeth subsides.

Monk endures.

Besides playing some of my favourite Monk tunes at this concert, I chose also to play two tunes that Monk didn't write, but played often. And I wrote several of the compositions in his honor, including one dedicated to his wonderful saxophonist, Charlie Rouse, Monk's number-one teammate for eleven years.

I did get to play a few times with Charlie; I appear with him playing 'Blue Monk' on Epistrophy (Landmark- Fantasy). This turned out to be his last recording. I love his playing; he's immediately identifiable and was the perfect match for Monk's musical vision.

I wanted this to be more than just another album of Monk tunes. Above all, Monk was original, and he demanded originality in those that played with him. So this is a Jessica Williams album with Monk as the guest of honour. And many other improvisers make special appearances (I hear Sonny Rollins on 'Reflections').

If you hear Monk in me at times, that's because he's a natural part of my musical make-up now.

Thelonious Monk gave us a body of work that will continue to be played and heard and cherished for centuries. He's a legend, now. But for me, he's a lesson, and the lesson is:

Sing your song, your song and no one else's, no matter how much resistance you encounter, no matter what your critics or friends or relatives, or peer groups or opinion polls tell you.

Follow your path and don't leave it just because everyone else is headed in a different direction.

Believe, with all your will, in the song you've heard in your heart for as long as you can remember.

Sing that song, loud and long enough, and it will be heard. And it will change the world.

That's what Monk did. And we heard. And we changed.

Jessica Williams -3-98

See also More for Monk