Monk's Blue Note recording of Misterioso

I want to talk about a particular recording that Thelonious Monk made of 'Misterioso'. The recording was made for Blue Note on July 2, 1948 with Monk on piano, Milt Jackson on vibes, John Simmons on bass, and Shadow Wilson on drums. According to the liner notes of the album I have with it ("The Best of Thelonious Monk: the Blue Note Years") it's his first recording of the song, and it's one of my favorite recordings ever.

There are eight songs on this album with Milt Jackson, and I have to say that I don't think that his presence is always a positive thing. This is probably largely because I'm not a big fan of the vibraphone--it's a little too smooth and mellow, and I prefer something with a bit more edge to it. On "Evidence" (same personnel and date), for instance, I feel that Milt Jackson's playing is largely irrelevent and distracting to what I like about the piece. But on some of the pieces his presence is effective and adds to the overall ambience of the piece, and Misterioso is such a piece. (Epistrophy also I think has him in a particularly effective role, where the smoothness of his playing contrasts with the loopiness of what he's playing to make for a positively otherworldly listening experience.)

This recording of Misterioso I hear as a sort of contest, or even a war, between the dissonent, percussive approach taken by Monk and the smooth, pretty, and standard approach to the blues piece taken by Jackson. Both sides are allowed to make their case in a very structured way that provides the maximum contrast.

First, there's the statement of the theme. Both soloists play the ascending sixths together for a chorus. This theme is very regular and nonmelodic, so after the first chorus I'm ready for it to change gears into the first soloist section, in which Monk accompanies Jackson. (There are very few Monk pieces I would characterise as unabashed blowing pieces, but this is one of them, basically because you can't really improvise around the melody since it's so nonmelodic.)

Jackson plays what sounds to me as a very pleasant, standard jazz blues-progression solo, moving up and down the vibes pretty linearly. Meanwhile, Monk punctuates and breaks up the solo with his accompaniment, where he plays a bass note followed by the diminished and natural fifth above that every time there's a chord change. The overall impression is that of a pretty good (but not mind-blowing) blues solo, but with some dissonance in the background that keeps you off balance. Then, after one chorus, we come to Monk's solo.

Nothing about Monk's solo works the way you expect it to. He plays notes that sound like they're in the wrong key, he jumps unexpected (and not normally played) intervals, his melodic lines suddenly switch directions in unexpected ways, he plays diminished seconds. And yet there's an underlying order, because once it seems like he accidentally lags behind the progression a bar at one point, and it sounds off--that is, my reaction on first hearing it was, "Hey, that's out of tune for the wrong key!" When I first heard this as someone who had been listening to and trying to play a lot of blues piano, it completely and utterly blew my mind. The contrast with the previous solo is indescribable and contributes to the effect: This is Monk in all of his skill and power, there for all to hear. This is packed into two choruses (during which Jackson doesn't play at all), at which point Monk resolves to a note that has no apparent relationship to the key the piece is in and they go back to a restatement of the theme.

The theme is restated (at first) by Jackson, with Monk punctuating with off-color single notes. Finally, for the last few bars, Monk joins in with the restatement of the theme, after which he plays a downward run (with that characteristic scale he used a lot) and ends the piece. The piece therefore has a symmetrical structure; first Monk and Jackson playing the theme together, then Monk accompanying Jackson, then Monk soloing alone, then Monk accompanying Jackson again, then them playing the theme together again; and in this structure the climax is Monk's solo.

I've heard other recordings that Monk made of the piece, and none of them really had the same structure (although some were very good), which makes me wonder whether Monk actually had this sort of order->disorder->order cycle in mind when he arranged the piece for this session. Even if it's accidental, though, I think it works wonderfully.


This was something random written by Jacob Haller. To see another random thing, click here. To get a permanent link to this particular random thing, click here.


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