Sunday, October 19, 2008

Modified Monk

There are worse ways to discover Thelonious Monk.

It was 1984. I was four years out of college. I was a struggling newspaper writer, freshly married. I had discovered jazz a few years earlier, but was still fixated on a few faves – Brubeck, Corea, Mingus, even Fats Waller. Monk? Heard of the guy, but never listened to his music.

And what kind of name is that, anyway?

Then a friend gave me a two-record set called “That’s the Way I Feel Now,” a tribute to Thelonious Monk by a bunch of disparate musicians – some jazz, some rock, some who sounded like they came from Mars, or maybe CBGBs.

You need to hear this record. Really.

There are 23 cuts, all Monk tunes, but no two of them sound remotely the same. And yet every one remains true to Monk and his music.

NRBQ and Peter Frampton rock out on “Little Rootie Tootie” and “Work,” respectively. Dr. John gets all New Orleansy on a solo piano version of “Blue Monk.” Joe Jackson plays piano with an orchestra on a wistful “Round Midnight.” Todd Rundgren turns in a happy, playful, fun “Four In One.” Bobby McFerrin tries an equally fun duet with voice-and-vibes on “Friday the 13th.”

And then there are the oddities. In their dopey way, I like them, too. John Zorn turns in, by far, the strangest version of a Monk song you’ll ever hear. It’s “Shuffle Boil” with squeaks and beeps and duck calls. I’m sure there’s a Monk tune in there somewhere. I think. Anyway, it’s clever and original – just like Monk. He’d like it.

The original LP featured sleeves with references to all the original Monk works. I was intrigued. If the reworkings were this odd, what could the originals sound like? I bought one. Then another. And another. They lived up to expectations. I became Monk crazed.

The shame is this: The record is out of print. There is an old one-disc CD version, which costs way too much used, which may be OK because the producers cut out seven tracks to fit it on the one disc. That means I’m left with my cassette tape, and I’m not too sure how long that will hold out. (I gave away the original LP. Wish I hadn’t.)

If you can find it, get it. Tape it, copy it. This is the one that turned me on to my all-time favorite jazz pianist. After all these years, it still sounds fresh.

Suggested CD: "That's The Way I Feel Now" by Various Artists

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