Thelonious Monk's music presents jazz performers with a unique challenge. In my opinion, any convincing performance of a Monk piece should be informed to some extent by the particular harmonic language and voicing system which Monk developed. In a Monk composition melody, harmony and chord voicings are integrated in such a way that they have to be taken into account when performing his work. This isn't about simply throwing in the odd flattened fifth or semi-tone dissonance to sound a bit 'Monkish'. Monk's system is in fact extremely consistent and rigorous and it's about really trying to understand how this system operates and how Monk achieved the effects he did.
I think the most successful interpreters of Monk's music are the performers who manage to somehow get inside his language and are able to improvise within this language. It's almost like to 'play Monk' you have to be able to 'speak Monk'. You can depart from what he does, but it still has to be faithful to Monk's language and vision. For example there are certain voicings which just don't 'work' when performing a Monk tune.There are also certain counter-melodies and harmonic embellishments of the melody which are inseparable from the tune and give it its particular character.
Bud Powell was a brilliant interpreter of Monk - listen to his performances of Monk tunes on his late album Portrait of Thelonious. It's not a copy of Monk, it still sounds like Bud Powell, and yet he's definitely 'speaking Monk'. I was lucky enough to see Barry Harris perform at the Pizza Express last year, and although ailing, he performed a beautiful version of Ruby My Dear which exhibited a deep understanding of the Monk idiom.
I've recently been learning Monk's Mood, and I thought it might be worth analysing a little, with particular reference to the axis system which I've written about in previous posts. I'm pretty convinced Monk understood the axis relationships at some instinctive level and it's interesting that John Coltrane a 'pupil' of Monk went on to develop the use of the axis system in his own compositions.
The version of Monk's Mood I'm using for this analysis is a transcription of the performance on the Blue Note recording Genius of Modern Music Vol 2
This version is for quintet, however most of the time Monk just orchestrates his piano voicings so although the transcription is written as a solo piano performance it's a pretty accurate reflection of what's happening harmonically.
Here's is the full transcription.
As with a lot of Monk tunes the first problem is figuring out what key it's in. I would venture C major although the tune never actually resolves to C major. At the end of the 2nd time bar when we might expect a V-I cadence, Monk resolves a semi-tone up to Db major. Obviously this is a common enough substitution for the I chord (Neapolitan 6th anyone?), so I think we can assume the I chord would be C major.
The very first progression (after the 4 bar intro) is Fmin7 - Bb7(b5) - Cmajor 7. This is what is sometimes referred to as a 'back-door' cadence. It can be analysed according to axis system theory with the Fmin7 chord being an axis substitution for the Dmin7 chord and the Bb7 chord acting as an axis substitution for the G7 (for an explanation of the axis system see my blog post 'Some Applications of the Axis System). The progression then resolves up a tone to Cmaj7. So in effect the first four bars are simply a substitute progression for a II-V-I in C major. Next we have Dmin7b5 - G7b5 - Dbmajor7. This is a min II-V cadence resolving not to the I chord but to the bII.
The next two bars are basically a repeated III7 - VI7 progression with tritone substitutions. So we get: |Bb7 / A7 /| E7 / Eb7 /| this then leads to an unusual progression: |D11 / E11 / | D11 / Bb7 /|
What's happening here? I think Monk may be thinking of a VI min - II7 progression but with different bass notes. So the first chord is basically Amin with a D in the bass (making D11) and the next chord a D chord with an E in the bass (making an E11). The progression then moves back to D11 which I think functions here as a kind of II chord followed by a bVII7 chord. This is an axis substitution for G7 and also sets up the move back to the Fmin chord at the start of the sequence. It really feels as if Monk is playing with the idea of the C major/ Eb major axis and deliberately moving between them.
The A section then repeats until we get to the 2nd time bar were Monk plays |Ab7 / G7 /|
Db maj7| This is a pretty standard tritone sub, again resolving to the bII chord rather than the I. It's interesting to note the way Monk voices the Ab7 chord, putting the b5 interval in the left hand between the root and the 7th, (this is a very characteristic Monk effect).
The first 2 bars of the bridge feature a kind of pedal. The sequence goes: |C11 / C7b9 /| C11 / F#min7 /| I see this as a substitute for |Gmin7 / C7 /| Gmin / C7| with the F#min chord working as a transformed tritone sub for C7. Monk then makes this chord the first chord in a II-V-I progression to E major.
The next part of the bridge is | Amin7b5 Ab7 G11 Abdim | Amin7b5 / F7 / |. This is a II V I into Gmin (including a tritone sub on the chord V), the Gmin chord being transformed into a G11. The Amin7b5 in the next bar could be seen as an axis substitution for Cmin7 leading to the F7. The diminished chord could also be seen as a kind of substitute for a G7b9 which would lead to the Cmin7 chord. So this whole little sequence without the substitutions (de-Monkified?) could be written as: |Amin7b5 D7alt Gmin7 G7b9| Cmin7 / F7 / |
The next progression is written as: |Fmin7 / Ebmin7 / | D11 / Bb7 | leading us back to the A section. In the actual chord voicings however Monk plays a Bb in the bass of the 'Ebmin7' chord making it more like a Bbmin7b13. Again, in the last bar he uses an axis substitution for what is in effect an Fmin7 chord leading to a Bb7 chord.
It's interesting that although Monk's music is often thought of as unconventional and strange, the basic building blocks of his tunes are pretty standard functional progressions, which he then filters through his unique system of substitutions and transformations. I'm pretty convinced that Monk had an understanding of the axis relationships, and used them as part of his way of constructing chord progressions.
It's not difficult to see how he could have discovered this relationship. For example if he played a Dmin7b5 voicing in the right hand and moved his left hand from D up to F (in effect a first inversion) he would have got an Fmin6 voicing. If he did the same with the G7b9 voicing (Abdim over G) and moved the bass note up a min 3rd he would have arrived at Bb7b9.
So his understanding may have been practical (or aural) rather than theoretical, although with Monk it's quite hard to know how much theory he knew, as he never wrote about, and hardly even spoke about his music, except for a few gnomic utterances.In a similar way he seemed to intuitively grasp the nature of sonority and resonance, especially in relation to the piano.
Looked at from a purely theoretical view some of his voicings are just 'wrong'. To take just one example from this transcription, the way he voices the Bb7 chord on page 40 just before returning to the A section. Monk plays a Bb in the bass and in the right hand a B natural and a Bb an octave above! (root -b9 - root!) And yet somehow it works, partly due to what has preceded it, and partly due to the particular way the piano resonates.(This voicing probably wouldn't work as well on the guitar, in the same way that some effective guitar voicings don't necessarily translate to the piano.)
The Baroness 'Pannonica' who Monk lived with when he was in New York has described how Monk would practise. Apparently he would play a chord voicing and then listen, perhaps for a few minutes, before playing another voicing and listening again for a few minutes more, then play another voicing; and this would go on for hours (to the annoyance of her neighbours!)
It was probably partly through practising in this way that Monk developed this unique understanding of how certain combinations of notes resonate in a cetain way, and create harmonious effects, even if the result blatantly contradicts conventional theory about how chord voicings works. For example Monk would often omit the third from his chord voicings, which contravenes a fundamental rule that chord voicings should always contain the third. He would also often include a semi-tone between the top and second note of a voicing (again a theoretical no-no) I think Monk was thinking about the piano in a very pure way and in a sense working from the acoustics up, rather than the theory down.
As I mentioned earlier, the counter-melodies and inner lines Monk introduces into his compositions are integral to the effect of the piece. An example from this tune would be the descending line in bar 4 of the A section. This line suggests a harmonic movement from the Dbmaj chord down through a C and B chord arriving at the Bb7 chord of the next section. Any performance of the piece which ignored this line would be missing an important part of the harmonic progression. I'm not suggesting that a performer would necessarily have to play this line, but I think with Monk's music it's important to understand what the function of these inner lines are, and what they add to the piece, before deciding to alter or dispense with them.
With this in mind it's interesting and informative to listen to Bud Powell's performance of Monk's Mood on the aforementioned Portrait of Thelonious. This is far from a 'copy' of Monk's style. Powell takes the piece at a funereal pace and although all the 'architecture' is there, Powell interprets everything in his own distinctive way. His voicings are much denser and heavier than Monk's, and the mood he creates is more sombre and dark.
The particular descending line I mention above is present in Bud's interpretation but with a slightly different rhythm, and interestingly it moves to the Cmajor chord earlier, giving more sense of resolution. Powell seemed to realise that this move to C major (the tonic) was an important part of the harmony at this point. Powell also introduces some new rhythmic figures to the tune, and even changes the melody to some extent. The important point is that these changes are made in the context of Monk's particular sound world and with reference to Monk's intentions.
Finally, as an exercise I'm going to include a 'de-Monkified' version of the chord changes to 'Monk's Mood; that is, stripping away the substitutions and transformations, to reveal the underlying harmonic structure.
||: Dmin7(b5) / G7(b9) /| Cmaj7 / / / | Dmin7b5 / G7b9 / | Dbmaj7 / / / | Emin7 / A7 / | Emin7 / A7 / |
|1| Amin7 / D7 / | Dmin7 / G7 / |2| Dmin7 / G7 / | Dbmaj7 / / / || Gmin7 / C7 / | Gmin7 / C7 |
F#min7 / B7 / | Emaj7 / / / | Amin7b5 D7b9 Gmin7 G7b9| Cmin7 / F7 / | Fmin7 / Bb7 /| Dmin7 / G7 |
Dmin7(b5) / G7(b9) / | Cmaj7 / / / | Dmin7b5 / G7b9 / | Dbmaj7 / / / | Emin7 / A7 / | Emin7 / A7 / |
Dmin7 / G7 / | Dbmaj7 / / / ||
Obviously this in no way an exhaustive analysis of Monk's Mood, and doesn't really begin to address the rhythmic or melodic aspects of the piece, which again in Monk's music are all intimately related.
My main aim is simply to try to understand a little more about how Monk makes some of the harmonic decisions he does, with a view to approaching and ultimately performing his work from a more informed position.