Or: ‘Why you should never tell drunk people that you are into Theolonius Monk’
So a few weeks back at the EFG London Jazz Festival, I went to check out the Bad Plus with some friends from university days. They were great; literally great. The sound is so accomplished, so unique and so exciting that in my view they are now entering the realm of being true greats of the genre. It was a contender for the best gig I’ve ever been to. It was a trendy warehouse venue in Shoreditch with a decent bar and standing room only, so naturally, we took advantage.
Afterwards, several to the wind, I bumped into the piano player Ethan Iverson, waiting outside for a lift, I presume. I stumbled over to him and did the inevitable “I’m your biggest fan” routine, which I’m never sure if Jazz Musicians hear often enough to get sick of. He didn’t run away (yet), so I guess not.
I then asked him “when you were learning to play, who were you really into”… and he answered Monk. I’ve been thinking about that answer a lot since then.
Earlier in the evening I said to my friend that the one let down was the piano player played a lot of long, melodic, legato quaver patterns. At best they complement the drama in the rest of the music, at worst they are an anti-climax when you want the solo voice of the pianist to take the group to another level.
Anyway, I didn’t hear a lot of Monk in it. So, being drunk I said so and he answered that he the most important thing was to sound like yourself and if he was playing standards it would come through a lot more. Fair enough?
Yes and no. A lot of pianists on the left of centre side of jazz quote Monk as an influence; but have they really done business with his music? It often just sounds like the main piece they take away is that you can be angular and spontaneous, and use all the colours of the piano without feeling like you aren’t really drawing from the jazz tradition. So the odd splash chord, repeated note, chaotic splutter up the piano goes alongside the lines.
But that isn’t Monk. Monk is the complete package; from the random whole tone scales that basically say “okay, bored now”, to the familiar angular phrases, to the way the band swings hard whenever he plays. Few piano players have ever truly both absorbed and reinvented Monk: Andrew Hill, Paul Bley, Stan Tracey. But all of them have a distinct style that marks them out as players influenced by Monk. It’s such a decisive calling card.
I didn’t hear any Monk in Ethan Iverson’s playing and I think the Bad Plus would benefit if we did; adding something unpredictable, spikey, angular, raw and exciting to the piano solos along with the rock harmony and lines.
Anyway, back to our conversation I asked him for a selfie of us pulling our best #jazzfaces.