Monk got me again–I was driving on the 405 when “Body and Soul” came on Jazz 88.1–something about driving makes me listen differently; maybe it’s the steadiness of freeway driving, the drone of the road– maybe when I only half listen to the radio and don’t apply the musician/composer filter I get a more immediate dose. Maybe I’m just a freakin wonk who needs a beating.

Monk plays like a composer, or he composes like a player, like Ellington, or even Gill Evans (have you heard the Steve Lacy/Gill duo record?). Monk got me the other day with his sharp, harmonically rich and detailed solo treatment of “Body and Soul.” He takes the tune apart and puts it back together with a rich variety of chord structures and root movement re-harms. There’s ton’s there; this cut is on the Columbia set “Monk Alone: The Complete Studio Recordings…” –3 full studio takes of “B and S”–tons of content: linear movement, rich voicings including a very cool minor 11th, substitute dominates that resolve backwards (up)–

One thing that stands out to me in this and other performances by “composerly” players is how they can use chords and harmonies in a gestural way. It’s big time in this cut. A tune like “Body and Soul” is relatively simple and formally even, with a tonality and structure that provides a taut bouncing surface for ideas. The form and the tonal movement of the tune provides a temporal and harmonic sub structure, etc…(of course that’s the basis of most jazz, duh…). But why does it really work well here? Why are ideas so clear and free and why does it work so well?

Gestural writing–it’s like throwing your spaghetti idea against the song wall. Monk in “Body and Soul” is manipulating chord quality and root movement so as to go against the grain of the song. Each idea, or gesture appears, does its thing, then moves on the next event: rising “Pink Panther-ish” parallel 5ths in bar 1, angular substitute chords with “borrowed” harmony, colorful unidentified clusters, the way cool Fmi11 chord which stops the clock right in the middle of the A section–it’s almost too much. Each gesture makes sense, you want to hear more of the colors, the ear is pierced by the “quality” (taste?) of the chord which takes you out of the tune and then sends you back in with a altered tonal resolution…then on to the next gesture.

A composer’s mind and ideas form gestures, our ears judge and accept them with regard to what has come before, during, and even after we hear it. We don’t hear in real time, we use our sense of expectation (which in jazz it frequently comes from knowing the tune or progression), and our sense of resolution of aural tension to manufacture the time base of our listening experience. A composer works this angle,  Monk does this with ease and genius. He moves the air, he shakes the tune, and he moves your mind.

Intuitively I assume that this process is easier when working within a song form, a standard or a blues, because the prep of the ear is already done. But how does a writer begin to manufacture this when NOT using a standard form as a structure?

Like a Ninja, Monk displays his weapons before he dismembers you, or like the Monkey Kung Fu master in “Kill Bill”–he lays out the gestural vocab in the first few bars, then keeps at it, flailing his gestures, then repeats the tune, then again…until I’m totally cooked–freakin’ brother burnt a hole in my brain with this one; either that or the damage was already done.

Too much coffee this morning?

About Scott Healy

LA composer and performer.
This entry was posted in Harmony, Jazz Composition and Analysis, Jazz history, Jazz piano, Solo piano, Theory and Harmony and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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