On Monday 27th July 1959 Thelonious Monk went into a New York city recording studio to record the music for the film 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' by the French director Marcel Romano. He had with him his band at the time, Art Taylor, Sam Jones and Charlie Rouse, and also joining them was a young French saxophonist Barney Wilen.
The whole session has just been rediscovered and released by Sam records and it proves an interesting listen. The music mainly consists of Monk playing tunes from his usual repertoire (Rhythm-a-Ning, Crepescule with Nellie etc), but also includes a beautiful improvised blues called Six-in-One and an old hymn By and By.
The CD ends with a 14 min rehearsal of a lesser known Monk tune called Light Blue. It's an interesting snapshot of Monk in the recording studio. By all accounts working with Monk could be a demanding experience. He would insist that musicians learn his often quite complex tunes by ear rather than let them use the music. The title track of the 1957 album Brilliant Corners proved so difficult that after twenty-five takes the band still didn't have a usable version, and the final track had to be stitched together from the various takes.
The rehearsal tape provides a glimpse of Monk at work in the studio. It mainly features an extended exchange between Monk and Art Taylor the drummer. Something Taylor plays almost by accident gives Monk an idea for a very specific rhythmic figure he wants Taylor to play. Most of the rehearsal is taken up with Monk trying to explain this rhythm to Taylor, and it's revealing in many ways, as well as being pretty amusing!
The rhythm Monk hits upon is quite unusual and counter-intuitive which is perhaps why Taylor has so much trouble with it.
The song is in a slow 4, and Monk wants Taylor to play a syncopated rhythm against the beat:
Count 1 2 3 4
Monk's rhythm + 2 + + 4 +
This is, in effect, a fairly standard 'Oom Cha Cha' rhythm but displaced by half a beat.This type of rhythmic displacement is something that interested Monk, and is used to great effect in many of his compositions, perhaps the most obvious being Straight No Chaser.
To begin with, Monk gets Taylor to play the basic rhythm a few times. Monk then comes in with the tune. The problem is that Taylor is expecting Monk to enter with the bass drum on 'one' (as would most people). This is why he tells Monk the rhythm doesn't feel right to him. To confuse matters further, on one occasion Monk comes in in the wrong place and then blames Taylor for changing the rhythm!
It's interesting how throughout this process Taylor is very patient with Monk, and obviously has a great respect for him. He keeps his temper, and really tries to understand what Monk is trying to get him to do, despite his reservations.
Eventually Monk realises that he has to give Taylor more explicit instructions. He then begins singing the rhythm and counting it out. His explanation is very clear and accurate. He obviously understands theoretically exactly how the rhythm works.
This supports what many musicians who worked with Monk have said about him - that he had a deep theoretical understanding of the music. This tends to contradict the 'crazy genius' myth that has always dogged Monk, and in many cases led to his work being misunderstood and underappreciated. When it came to musical matters he always knew exactly what he was doing.
There follows an audio clip of the tape accompanied by my transcription of the exchange. Monk's words are unclear at times, and some of the dialogue is off mic, but I've done my best with it.
Tape begins with Monk playing the tune and Taylor tapping a rhythm on the kit. It actually sounds like he’s tuning his drums!
Monk: Why don’t you keep doing that…what you’re just doing? What you were doing just then. What you were doing.
Taylor plays rhythm more in time.
Monk plays the tune along then stops
Taylor: Uh Oh..
Monk: Go on.
Taylor tries again, Monk comes in, but again Taylor stops.
Monk: Keep going! Keep going… doing it. Don’t let me (inaudible) you dig? Just keep in mind what you’re doing.
Another false start
Monk: Damn! Why you stop man? That’s crazy! I mean I’m trying to … dig where… I dig where you’re going!
Monk: Oh, why you stop man? Just keep doing what you’re doing. Cos it was in time.
Taylor (and others): No, it wasn’t!
Monk: I’ll be damned if it wasn’t!
Taylor : It wasn’t in time to me man.
They try again. Taylor stops
Taylor: Weren’t in time to me man.
Monk: Just keep on doing it! I’ll come in!
Taylor : Oh yeah?
Monk: You just keep doing that! Keep going… doing what you doing!
Taylor : OK.
Monk: Forget what’s…..you know, if it mixes you up, just close your ears to what you’re doing…you know what I mean, you don’t close your ears all the time, but you close your ears to what we doing, you can’t hear what we playing, and then play that properly.
Monk: You dig?
Better attempt, but when rest of band come in it falls apart.
Monk: You fucked up! Just keep…..I told you not to listen to the…..You dig? Just keep counting to yourself.
They try again. This time Monk comes in in the wrong place. He stops.
Monk: You changed!
Taylor : Uh?
Monk: You see that bass drum is on the ‘and’...it’s on the upbeat. You dig?
Taylor: What was I playing?
Monk: Don’t change it and start coming out on the beat. You dig what I mean?
Taylor: I didn’t change the way I started!
Taylor: I didn’t change the way I started.
Monk: Yes you did!
Taylor: Yeah? Oh yeah? OK.
Monk: See the bass drum is on the upbeat you dig? You know when you coming down on the downbeat…you know… on ‘one’ with the bass drum, you know you’re wrong. You dig?
They try again. Taylor stops
Monk sings the rhythm
Monk: Uh Boom Bah Bah! Uh Boom Bah Bah… etc
Taylor: (laughing) I started something right here! Shit!
Monk: You dig?
Sam Jones tries to help although comments inaudible.
Monk: You dig how it goes Sam don’t you? (to Taylor) You just dumb! You a dumb motherfucker man! (back-ground laughing)…Dumb motherfucker!
Taylor: Alright Monk.
Taylor tries again. Monk starts counting quavers.
Monk: One and two and three and four and one and two and three and four and… You dig it?
Taylor: That’s not the problem Monk, but I mean I’m doing this here… I dunno… I never did that before.
Monk: Well do something else but keep the same time, you know, and the same kind of thing going.
Monk: You don’t have to keep doing that… do other things…but you have to keep that time y’know.
Monk: And two and…and four and…you dig? It’s on the ‘and’ of the three… and four and, on the ‘and’ of the one and two and… you dig?
Taylor tries some different combinations of, bass drum, snare, tom etc
They try again, and this time, get half way through the first head after the band come in. Then Taylor stops.
Taylor: Start again Monk. I’m sorry.
Monk: And two and three and…you dig? It’s on the ‘and’ of one and two…you dig? Or you’ll always…you’ll find yourself…because…on the first beat…you dig?...On the first beat ‘one’ and your bass drum comes on the ‘and’..you dig?
Try another run through. Breakdown
Monk: Play it slower
Monk: One, two, three, four…make that bass drum louder…don’t rush it.
Monk joins in.
Taylor: Start again
Monk: Uh Boom Cha Cha..you dig? Boom Cha Cha.
Monk: Boom Ta Ta… Boom Ta Ta….
Run through whole tune
Taylor : So keep going ?
Monk: Yeah that would’ve been crazy if you’d kept on doing that.
Taylor: Oh we were taking a take? I didn’t know you were taking it?
Monk: (inaudible) Listen to it. Play it back please.