Thelonious Monk | Brilliant Corners (1957)
Hard Bop 42:47
There is a bass guitar standing in the corner of my room. I’ve had it for more than 20 years, since I received it as a gift for my 18th birthday. Each year, as another birthday comes around, I promise myself that I will pick it up and learn to play it. And each year, it remains in its case, hidden from the world, its strings remaining unplucked. I have made the occasional attempt to master this instrument – I have brought ‘how to…’ guides, tuned the strings and sat with it on my knee. But I have never got past the first few exercises.
The reason for my hesitation is simple; I learned to play electric guitar using tablature. This version of notation involves using numbers on the musical lines, each line representing a string of the guitar and the number representing the fret that needs to be held down. It is a simple process and one which, with a little practice, means that you can soon be playing along to your favourite rock track without ever learning to read real music. The bass instruction guides, however, forego this simple notation in favour for the more traditional approach – all staves and rest symbols. And, no matter how hard I try, I just can’t get my head around this very different form of writing.
It begs the question, when listening to records, how much do you need to know about musical theory in order to appreciate the tracks? Many incredible musicians don’t know the basics elements behind their sounds either – John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Page have all stated in interviews that they are unable to read sheet music (Page once said that the notes looked like “crows on power lines” to him, while Clapton confessed to feeling nervous in recording sessions as every other musicians had the music on stands in front of them). So if you don’t need to understand music theory in order to write it, stands to reason that you don’t need to understand the workings behind it to appreciate listening to it either.
To be honest, it probably doesn’t matter with a large proportion of the albums in the charts. After all, how much do you really need to know when listening to Status Quo using the same three chords for every song (a cheap shot – but you get my point)? I may not really get the intricacies of the key changes, but it doesn’t stop me from understanding whether I enjoy actually listening to the music. But there is a nagging feeling, somewhere at the back of my mind, that I would be able to appreciate it so much more if I knew a little more theory, even if I couldn’t translate that into practice. And this couldn’t be more obvious than with Thelonious Monk’s album, Brilliant Corners.
While undoubtedly a landmark album, this is not an easy listen. Mind you, it wasn’t exactly an easy one to record either. The title track, which is as close to my perception of ‘true’ jazz – music stopping and stuttering; instruments playing a range of notes, none of which necessary following each other on the scale – took 25 takes across a four-hour session. Even after all this, a complete recording was never made, with bassist Oscar Pettiford reaching boiling point and venting his anger at Monk, while saxophonist Ernie Henry seemingly having a mental breakdown. Even then, it was up to producer Orrin Keepnews to splice the results of all the takes into one final version. Listening to it kick off the album, it isn’t hard to understand why it was so difficult to record. The tempo changes at the drop of a hat and it is often hard to follow any narrative to the musical score. Again, I’m no expert but this sounds a mess at times. However, unlike my hatred of country music, I feel I want to appreciate the musicianship but, without that deeper knowledge, I find myself floundering.
As the album progresses across its running time (there are just five tracks in total on the whole album), things don’t become easier. The following number, Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Ar, continues to be determined to frustrate in its lack of a coherent form. At times it seems the drummer, pianist and saxophonists, are either playing different songs or, a theory which became more likely the longer I listened, as if they are playing their instruments for the very first time (random notes on the piano do not make music, no matter how talented you are). By the time we’ve reached the final track, Bemsh Swing, my brain is aching.
I know I don’t get jazz; I know my knowledge of music isn’t great. But, without wanting to sound like the grumpy father of a young nightclubber, to my ears this isn’t music. Perhaps my choices in the records I’ve listened to until this point in my life has left me unable to appreciate anything which deviates from a traditional concept of ‘popular’ tunes. Perhaps I need a better education in music before listening to an album this ‘difficult’. But I fear that, even then, I wouldn’t really understand it – because, in my mind, truly great music allows the audience in, to access it at a deeper understanding, no matter what the level of their music. And unfortunately Monk seems more determined to block the listeners and I’m left wondering if I’ve missed the joke.
If you’ve got a Spotify account, you can take a listen to the album here:
Next time: Palo Congo by Sabu