Monk’s Powerful Melodies, Part 1

I gigged some Thelonious Monk tunes last week and remembered how much I love his music. And I’m not alone… one of my bass teachers was playing an all-Monk set in Italy recently – and in the school I was in last year they run a yearly Monk-themed competition.

Today I’ve less transcription than in my last Monk article, but hopefully some nice ideas. I want to explore how Monk balances bright energy emanating from the powerful tonic triad with much darker tones, within a bluesy context.

This immediately reminds me of the binary: “rootedness-displacement” which I heard Vijay Iyer quote from Paul Gilroy. The concept is that a tension between these two properties powers much African-American culture. Some musical examples would be:

  • Time feel – a metronomic pulse is emphasised (rootedness) yet skilled players play ahead of or behind the beat (displacement)
  • Phrasing – a driving beat is made as powerful as possible, yet accents are typically off the beat. In music with underlying rhythms such as clave, many parts play against the rhythm.
  • Blues melody – there is a powerful gravity towards the tonic triad and the root, yet all the expressivity is in deviations – bends and melisma – from the tonic notes.
  • Standard jazz form – 12-bar and 32-bar cycles are an unchanging ground, which yet is constantly challenged via anticipation/delay/substitution of chord changes.

As far as I can make out (here in my white suburb in Ireland…) what’s distinctively African-American is the simultaneous multiple meanings. (The ground-surface dichotomy is from African drumming, I’ve read.) The different possibilities are present, or threaten to be present, at the same time: I7 and IV7 harmonic sounds in blues; ahead and behind the beat in a swing feel; “where beat 1 is” in a polyrhythmic techno piece. Something similar may apply in Signifyin’.

Enough of my usual vague ponderings on black culture! It’s analysis time.

I’ve played this tune since I was a teenager. You can hear why a youngster would like it – it’s extremely catchy and cool-sounding.

Well A
The A section of “Well You Needn’t”

There’s a lot going on here, including a lovely low-register chromatic comping voice (more about that in a bit) and a strong 2-bar syncopation driving the phrase structure. Note the groups of 3 in the concluding phrase.

The bridge shows Monk’s mastery of 32-bar AABA form. It repeats the groups-of-3 idea up a semitone – a seamless connection. The phrase structure (one bar riff followed by one bar rest) and harmonic idea (sequencing up a semitone) are familiar from the A section – although the harmonic rhythm is slower.

Well Bridge
Bridge from “Well You Needn’t”

The B section’s second half is brilliant. The harmonic rhythm suddenly is twice as fast as the A rather than twice as slow (symmetry), and the F to Gb up-a-semitone idea is allowed to continue its movement. This makes an exhilarating sequence of 7 chromatically connected flourishes, which (together with the first two chords of the bridge) sketch out the exact movement of the A section’s low-register counter melody… and then continue past it to land on a Cb, a tritone away from the home key.

All these connective devices create a powerful flow – and perhaps the most important single device is the well-crafted pattern of syncopated accents tying everything together. For instance, the “and of 2” note that ends the bridge melody is the only such accent in the whole piece, forming a peak before the return to A. As I wrote before, Monk is really good at balancing the forces in the final bar before returning to familiar material – the top of a 12-bar blues, or the last A of today’s 32-bar examples.

Charlie Rouse, long-time associate of Monk, also used darkness at peak moments: check the b9 at 2:30 in “Well You Needn’t” on the last bar of the bridge. (I’d love to know the history of this bluesy phrygian sound… Paul Gonsalvez features it in his famous Newport solo.)

The way Monk uses chromaticism in the “Well You Needn’t” bridge is revealing. It is a voice movement away and then towards the 5th (C) of the key. The accelerating harmonic rhythm gives a sensation of exhilarating unleashed energy. At the end there is the gesture of the descending line overshooting its C start point to reach B, a note outside the key. We’ll see this exact concept elsewhere: the momentum of a movement carrying it outside the key at the end of a section. Rouse’ b9 is an example too.

Just to connect this to some past themes and buzzwords… Monk is virtuosically “navigating the form”, he’s using the “hidden energy” trope of black cool, and his music works in metaphors of movement (accelerating, momentum), so that it has “directionality”.

Let’s have a quick look at “Monk’s Dream”, title track of the 1962 album. Now, alas, I’m far from qualified to deal with the beautiful chords that comp the melody. As Vijay Iyer puts it:

“These chord-jewels of his were palpable, physical objects. By this I mean that they took advantage of the physics of sound; they were resonant.”

I’d struggle to get even a doubtful transcription of the chords in “Monk’s Dream”, so I’ll just talk melody.

Dream A
The A Section of “Monk’s Dream”, pathetically lacking in the chords I can’t transcribe

There’s an obvious resemblance to “Well You Needn’t”: the opening tonic arpeggio and the first phrase repeated every two bars with variations.

(I love how Monk’s voicing absorbs the major 7th on beat 1 of the tune into a gorgeous timbral object, so much so that it fits seamlessly in a bluesy tonality.)

The first bars run up and down a distinctive cell that I think of as III minor pentatonic over I (E minor pentatonic over C bass). After reading Origins of the Popular Style by Peter van der Merwe, I’m on the look out for the tendency to emphasise the 3rd and 6th so much that the melody outlines a VI minor or III minor modality against the I major key. “Just Friends” is a great example – the melody is mostly in the relative minor mode (including melodic minor 7 and 6).

The end of the A section involves a chromatic run taking us outside of the key – sound familiar? Like “Well You Needn’t”, the chromaticism seems to fit in between notes of the tonic triad frame. It finishes with a salient b2.

The B section is audacious. It uses the crude directionality of a melody climbing from root to octave – all over a I chord! And, apart from a #4 (part of the idiomatic blues run 3 4 #4 5), only C mixolydian notes are used. So, the only drive comes from the ascending contour and the syncopation.

Dream Bridge
Bridge melody of “Monk’s Dream”

Nothing more is required because of Monk’s adeptness with timbre and call-and-response. Drummer Frankie Dunlop neatly fills the gaps, while gorgeous chords followed by a lovely change from sustain-pedal tremolo to choked staccato tell a story in textures. Notice John Ore’s bassline reverting from 4 notes to 2 notes to the bar in the bridge’s final measure – somehow compensating a bit for the lack of cadential emphasis returning to the A section.

Well it’s nearly time to sign off (and leave some tunes to analyse another time). What did I learn?

Vijay Iyer’s article helped me sum it all up. Monk’s music feels really good pretty much all the time. He deals in groove, flow and sound. His compositions let those things happen. There’s an urgent creativity there, but it never impedes those qualities.

In my last couple of articles I’ve reflected on applying new concepts to my own music. I’ll do that again now.

First lesson: moments of the simplest, strongest possible melody – if the rhythms are hip – can and should be the opposite of corny. More subtly, they can work in an “extended blues” aesthetic that coherently incorporates major-minor ambiguity (i.e. modal interchange), symmetry, and the crunchiest dissonances. And finally, this style of melody should be used as an aid in constructing powerful large-scale shapes (again, with slick rhythm).

More generally, I had a glimpse of an idea, building on my initial investigations into independence, laying back, and gestural playing: what if every musical decision I made was by feel, by awareness of body sensations/embodied knowledge?

That’s a wide-ranging thought, and it reminds me of Vijay Iyer saying that the heritage of great jazz contains “codes for transformation: of yourself, your community, and your surroundings”.

Thanks for reading! Have a good week.

Blue Monk

Today’s post is about the blues tracks on Thelonious Monk’s most famous album, Monk’s Dream. Though recorded on different days, they’re placed one after the other on the release, and actually sound almost like one piece that changes tempo mid-way. I want to investigate how these seemingly unambitious performances (built mostly from traditional vocabulary) form a powerful artistic statement.

Transcribed by Steve Lacy in 1960

One quote on this list of Monk’s advice to musicians, is “Don’t play those weird notes, play the melody!” And in “Five Spot Blues”, the first track I’ll look at, Monk does just this. His solo (which I’ll discuss more later) uses versions of this lick:


… around 15 times before going back to the theme, which is itself entirely built from 7 repetitions of the lick.

One really important thing about this lick, is that it is a finger pattern as much as a melody. The grace note or flam or crushed note (or whatever you want to name it) is a physical effect that’s kept in a player’s muscle memory. Effects like that are completely central to blues, but also bebop (e.g. Charlie Parker’s mordents). Vijay Iyer is the guy to read on this topic of “embodied” and “situated” knowledge: knowledge that only comes out when you touch your instrument.

Not only does Monk keep coming back to this lick in his improvisation, but even he even uses it to accompany the first solo, by tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse.

Five 1
Melody lick as answering phrase in bars 6, 7, 9 & 10

Why does Monk re-use the phrase so much? Obviously we can’t be sure. But my reaction to these two tracks is that Monk has an aesthetic of slow, smooth transitions happening behind the surface level of swinging rhythms and phrases. I intentionally call it transition, not static repetition or elaboration. There is strong directionality in these performances. Both tracks purposefully develop in texture and interaction (as we’ll see in a second).

Why might Monk favour such slow evolutions of density and rhythm? I suspect it’s a way to maintain the focus of his band and keep everyone on the same vibe. For example, the whole first chorus (1:45-2:02) of his solo on “Five Spot Blues” explores the original finger pattern for ten bars until the drummer’s rhythms settle down.

Notice how Dunlop’s syncopated hits in the first few bars give way to an almost cartoonishly simple quarter note pulse on the snare starting on bar 6 (1:52)… and only by bar 11 are things focused enough for Monk to move away from the lick and play a different phrase (1:59). Dunlop seems to acknowledge the theme of releasing tension with the kick-and-hat-splash hit that ends his snare quarter notes, and also with the roll at the end of the chorus, a standard punctuating gesture often used to end a solo – so it’s as if the first chorus of Monk’s improvisation is actually still winding down the sax solo.

(I didn’t try transcribe this… another aspect of finger/muscle/physical patterns is that they put the spotlight on microtiming. The result is that Monk’s rhythms here are close to unnotateable. They come from physical sensations and from the possibility of stretching out the pattern in time by modulating the gesture that produces it.)

Track 4 on the album, “Bolivar Blues”, shows how Monk moulds these slow transitions around the 12-bar blues form. Each 12-bar chorus, or even pair of choruses, has a distinctive texture:

Piano theme 1x
0:22 Theme 2x
1:06 Solo against trill 2x
1:50 Preaching against low chords
2:12 Preaching w/ lead line from piano
2:35 bluesy vocab featuring double time and eighth-note triplets 3x
3:37 Double time cool-down (3:49 voice movement)
3:58 Exuberant blues ideas (4:08 hint of quarter note triplets)
4:19 Quarter-note triplets 2x
5:00 Cluster chords 2x
5:41 Bass movement with a lot of space
6:01 Timbral harmonisations of bass movement
6:22 Timbral harmonisation of head
6:42 Head on sax 2x

A little more subtly, not only is the 12-bar form used as a building block, but the point of rest in bar 12 is used as an area to cue or connect to the following chorus.

0:39 & 1:01 The bass switches to 4 notes per bar for the end of each head

1:48 The sax plays a strong, bright swingy line, cueing the piano to take a back seat in the 3rd solo chorus

2:09 after a declamatory, preaching statement that resolved the blues form conclusively, there’s careful silence on beat 1 of bar 12 before Rouse takes up the mantle again with another bluesy shout

2:31 Rouse very clearly signals a switch to double time, and Dunlop plays some at the same time, which hints that this was a standard tactic for the band

2:53 Rouse plays a strong dark lick similar to his sign-off in “Five Spot Blues”, outlining a bII. Like at 2:09, this isn’t a cue but a confident inhabiting of the crucial bar 12

3:12 After a double time flurry, Rouse cues a switch of vibe with downhome riffing on the familiar blues scale

3:35 Rouse’s double time sign-off triggers Monk’s entire next chorus

4:58 Not a cue, but you can hear Frankie Dunlop struggle a bit with the time after he has heroically resisted the pull of Monk’s quarter-note triplets for two choruses… he is switching back into normal comping mode (instead of resisting) and he slips a tiny bit

5:26 This connection emerges not in bar 12 but just before bar 5… Monk brings in a bass-register movement that will develop into a riff of its own at 5:41

The importance of the final bar is actually just one instance of the importance of “weak bars” in jazz and other African-American music. I think I mentioned recently, that, as an enormous generalisation, African phrasing tends to target the downbeat, while European phrasing begins on the downbeat. This is perhaps why even-numbered bars in a form often get used for call and answer, breaks and cues/communication.

See how Monk’s melody for “Five Spot Blues” leaves bars 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 open for drum comments.


(That’s from this cool site…

To finish, here’s Charlie Rouse’s whole solo on “Five Spot” with a sketch of the drum and piano parts. Try reading along to see their interaction!

Five 1Five 4Five 3.pngFive 2.png