Today marks the 90th birthday of Thelonious Sphere Monk, a musical visionary and stylistic individual that left an undeniable mark upon modern music. As a piano player, Monk stood alone in his approach. He found the most dissonant combination of notes in a chord and emphasized them dramatically. He took pieces of his melodies and altered them rhythmically, eventually building into a complete statement. Monk’s compositional voice challenged his contemporaries and forced his followers to study his pieces deeply. His melodic sensibility involved large stretches of intervals, chord extensions, alterations, and at times, beautiful simplicity. His rhythmic concept provided an extremely unique viewpoint, full of syncopations and shifting points of emphasis. When you hear a Monk recording or even another musician performing Monk’s compositions, it just yells Thelonious.
Monk’s influence stretched beyond traditional jazz settings; Latin Jazz musicians have incorporated Monk’s music into their repertoire quite extensively. While Monk never actually delved into Latin rhythms, his syncopated rhythmic approach sits comfortably in the Latin world. Many Monk melodies fit into the clave structure with only minor alterations, due to his habit of shifting rhythms over two bar phrases. Musicians have arranged and re-arranged Monk’s compositions in Latin settings, thriving on the opportunity to explore the unique harmonic territory over Cuban rhythms. These songs really speak to Latin musicians, as if Monk himself meant to write these songs in clave.
As a tribute to Monk and his lasting legacy, I’ve listed several fantastic Latin Jazz recordings of Monk compositions. These all serve as unique looks at this important musical figure and how his music influenced Latin Jazz. Take the time to listen to each track, and then find Monk recordings of these songs. Notice how natural each song fits into the Latin context, just as they flow for Monk himself. If you’ve got any additional suggestions for Latin Jazz recordings of Monk’s music, leave them in comments please!
1. Rumba Para Monk – Jerry Gonzalez & The Fort Apache Band
Jerry Gonzalez has visited Monk extensively throughout his career, but this album serves as the ultimate Latin Jazz Monk tribute. All 8 tracks are Monk compositions, arranged in clave. Each member of the ensemble knows Monk intimately, and their exploration of his music explodes with respect, passion, and excitement. If you are going to listen to one Latin Jazz version of Monk’s music today, start with this album!
2. “In Walked Bud” – Listen Here, Eddie Palmieri
Monk’s harmonic approached influenced Palmieri’s overall piano style, and this arrangement of “In Walked Bud” reflects his affinity for the composer. Trumpet player Brian Lynch and trombone player Conrad Herwig both deliver high-energy solos, leading into Palmieri’s fiery statement.
3. “Round Midnight” – Round Trip, Rebeca Mauleón
Mauleón transforms the classic ballad “Round Midnight” into an elegant danzón, full of subdued rhythmic intensity. John Calloway’s outstanding flute work compliments Mauleon’s powerful piano approach, creating a unique view of this standard.
4. “Bemsha Swing” – Hecho A Mano, Chano Dominguez
Perhaps one of the most unique interpretations of Monk listed here, Dominguez starts by playing a stride piano version of “Beshma Swing.” Syncopated hand claps and foot stomping quickly join his piano, turning this song into a flamenco masterpiece!
5. “Evidence” – Con Alma, Mark Weinstein
Flautist Mark Weinstein tackles a variety of standards on Con Alma, but his version of Monk’s “Evidence” over an intensive rumba stands alone. The stuttering melody fits perfectly, and Weinstein performs strongly.
6. “Off Minor” – Tumbao Para Los Congueros De Mi Vida, Al McKibbon
McKibbon’s knowledgable bass work anchors this version of “Off Minor,” played over an up-tempo son montuno rhythm. McKibbon’s solo displays insight into the song’s harmony and it’s rhythmic nature.
7. “I Mean You” – Portraits of Jazz in Clave, Ray Barretto
A variety of jazz luminaries join Barretto on this album, and his version of “I Mean You” features bassist Eddie Gomez. The song swings over a son montuno and unique vamp, leading into a melodically powerful solo from Gomez.
8. “Rhythm-A-Ning” – Funky Cha, Harvie S
Bassist Harvie S sets up a sparse but rhythmically offset groove to open “Rhythm-A-Ning,” creating the same sort of rhythmic displacement Monk favored. His band explores this sparse groove through improvisation, working rhythmic tension extensively.
9. “Well You Needn’t” – La Familia, Poncho Sanchez
Sanchez takes a Guaguanco rhythm down in tempo as a foundation to “Well You Needn’t,” creating a funky drive. The melody intertwines smoothly into the groove, giving it a quirky and fun feel.
Happy Birthday Mr. Monk, and thanks for the incredible music!