Bill Charlap Remembers Thelonious Monk, a Revolutionary Who Knew How to Swing

Early in the course of “Brilliant Corners,” the 92nd Street Y’s concert of Thelonious Monk’s music on Thursday night, the pianist Bill Charlap offered a succinct appreciation of Monk’s singular place in jazz. “He was a revolutionary within a revolution,” Mr. Charlap said. The revolution, he went on to explain, was bebop, which Monk helped foment but never fully embraced.

Mr. Charlap’s point was well taken. He had just maneuvered his trio through “Green Chimneys,” one of Monk’s more obscure tunes. With its jaunty sense of swing and repetitive, nearly obsessive melody, the song was characteristic of its composer. But it didn’t sound much like bebop, even when a pair of guest soloists, Wynton Marsalis on trumpet and Jimmy Greene on tenor saxophone, took their turns with the theme.

Of course the notion of Monk as a revolutionary is hardly a fresh idea. It was already hoary in the late 1960’s, when an album cover famously depicted him as a French resistance fighter with a cellar stockpile of munitions. What Thursday’s concert illustrated, a bit less sensationally, was the durability of Monk’s inventions. Mr. Charlap, in his second season as artistic director of the Y’s generally conservative jazz series, took pains to show how fully Monk had fed the mainstream.

Mr. Charlap was successful in this mission, perhaps exceedingly so. The concert was well played throughout, but roughly half of it felt undistinguished and too polite; in other words, not very Monklike. Occasionally this was a result of misdirection, as on the breezy tempo Mr. Charlap chose for “Well You Needn’t,” overstimulating the song. Elsewhere it was a result of mismatched musical temperaments, as on a handful of songs performed by the guest pianist Cedar Walton in the concert’s second half.

Mr. Walton, a literate and sophisticated musician, has a mature perspective on Monk’s music, and he admirably resisted the lure of imitation. But his mini-set, with the concert’s excellent house rhythm section of Peter Washington on bass and Lewis Nash on drums, never gathered steam. “Evidence” was duly syncopated but strangely inert, and “Ruby My Dear” came across as merely pretty. An arrangement of “Off Minor” with a light funk vamp fell flat.

Rather unexpectedly, Mr. Charlap offered the more compelling synthesis of Monk-inspired pianism, especially on a meticulous solo rendition of “Monk’s Mood.” He ended another ballad, “Crepuscule With Nellie,” with three dissonant chimes, a flagrantly Monkish touch. His immersion in character was an obvious act of artifice, but it also naturally suited the music.

A similar sense of rightness touched the concert’s best moments, like a bright “Four in One.” Mr. Marsalis shared the tune’s tricky, tumbling line with another trumpeter, Jeremy Pelt, in a close harmony. Then Mr. Pelt improvised, rather carefully, and Mr. Marsalis followed suit, more loose and relaxed. Finally there was an extended back-and-forth, as the trumpeters traded eight- and four-bar phrases. What could have been a study in competitive bluster turned out to be a genuine conversation, inquisitive as well as responsive, and true to the song.

Separately, each trumpeter produced another highlight. Mr. Pelt brought a comfortable bravado to “Bye-Ya,” starting with some ping-ponging intervals and moving on to a flowing eighth-note cadence. Mr. Marsalis played a hushed and soulful “ ’Round Midnight,” accompanied only by Mr. Charlap; refraining from excess embellishment, or even much vibrato, he exposed the vulnerability inherent in the song.

That somber, self-effacing performance led into the concert’s finale, a romp through “Rhythm-a-Ning” that put all the evening’s musicians into rotation in what resembled a pedestrian jam session. In a way, this was appropriate: a reminder that any successful revolution becomes part of the orthodoxy, in due time.

by Nate Chinen
Source: The New York Times

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