Thursday, August 25, 2011

CD Odyssey Disc 314: Thelonious Monk

After a long dry spell, I was able to buy 4 new CDs this past week. I got the last of Ronnie James Dio's good solo albums ("Sacred Heart"), the new Decemberists album (thanks to Catherine for introducing me to them), another Nick Cave ("Nocturama") and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings (thanks to Nick for inspiring that purchase).

Under the rules, I could have automatically chosen any of them to review as new to the collection, but I prefer a little randomness in my life, so I went ahead and let the dice gods choose instead.

Disc 314 is...Monk's Dream

Artist: Thelonious Monk

Year of Release: 1963

What’s Up With The Cover?: A profile shot of Thelonious Monk looking cool and groovy - because that is what jazz musicians do.

How I Came To Know It: Ever since getting a Monk compilation album I've been dabbling in his studio records. I first bought his 1968 effort, "Underground" (reviewed way back at Disc 117) and that encouraged me to put a second toe in the water - that toe is "Monk's Dream".

How It Stacks Up: My use of 'dabbled' above may have been a bit overly ambitious. I only have two of Monk's studio albums (plus the best of, which can't be properly rated). Of the two, I much prefer "Monk's Dream".

Rating: 4 stars.

I always dreaded this day would come - a third review where I have to discuss Thelonious Monk, with all my clever anectodes about how I don't know anything about jazz used up.

I was tempted to get all post-modernist, and discuss the placement of this particular album in the history of jazz, or to go on about Charlie Rouse's tenor saxophone, but I won't. This blog isn't about plagiarizing liner notes, nor is it about 10 minute research projects online that would allow me to fake knowing something. It is about my personal reaction to the music, and so I'll stick with that.

Playfully jumpy and full of life. That is how I would characterize this record. It makes you want to snap your fingers along with the drum and puts a swagger in your step (but hopefully not in your driving, because that would just be dangerous). It is music for the active mind, and it engages you almost meditatively - filling your head with the sublime math that is music.

I listened to the first half this album in the car on the way to and from the gym this morning. I wouldn't recommend these songs for your MP3 player when you're on the treadmill, but for the trip there and back they put me in a relaxed yet alert state of mind. Jazz has a busy flow that works well with traffic - you feel part of it instead of feeling frustrated by it. I find myself wondering how I'd like it on an empty, dusty country road in my home town - I think it would be alright.

I listened to the second half while painting this afternoon. I was a little nervous that sitting still wouldn't work with the upbeat sounds of the record, but they ended up going together very well. The music makes you think hard, but it doesn't force your thoughts in any particular direction. As a result, your mind wanders, but it does so in a controlled manner.

This is partly because "Monk's Dream" ranges around a lot, but never noodles. Half the songs on the record are over 6 minutes in length, but they never feel overlong; they feel just long enough. In fact, it is the longer tracks that I found myself enjoying more.

Monk will establish a musical theme, play it until you've got the groove solidly in your backbone, and then start to expirement with it with sax and piano solos that build off the initial theme, but never abandon it (kind of like how a good metal guitar solo works).

The songs on "Monk's Dream" always maintain enough of their original structure (and frequently come back to it) so you can keep up. All jazz musicians like to show off, but on this record Monk wants to ensure he brings his audience along, rather than make an effort to alienate you with their talent. (For those who prefer jazz to abuse your lack of musical knowledge, listen to the rambling and pointless "Sketches of Spain" by Miles Davis).

In fact, I bet if I knew anything about jazz, I'd have been tempted to give "Monk's Dream" five stars. Since I don't, I'll stick with four.

Best tracks: Monk's Dream, Bright Mississippi, Five Spot Blues, Bye-Ya

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