Monday Notes

Thelonious Monk Rhythm a Ning, a pianist beyond the mainstream

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[Monday Notes n.26] Although he was one of the protagonists of the historic jam sessions at Minton’s, it is impossible to place Thelonious Monk within any stylistic current, as his music is completely personal and inimitable. Let’s look at his piece Rhythm-a-Ning.

Monk was a great innovator, but not in the same direction as other bebop musicians. For example, while Bud Powell prefers fast tempos and tight phrases, Monk plays more often in medium tempo and with much emptier phrasing.

Rhythm-a-Ning is a piece built on the harmonic sequence of George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, a classic of the jazz repertoire. The piece opens with an introduction in which the pianist anticipates fragments of the theme. The actual exposition of the theme is performed by trumpet and tenor sax (0’14”), initially in unison, then at a distance of thirds with the tenor sax unusually higher than the trumpet.

Thelonious Monk Rhythm-a-ning sheet music and analysis
Thelonious Monk Rhythm-a-ning

The first solo (0’40”) is by Monk, who starts with four measures of rest, and continues with a broken and allusive phrasing, repeatedly quoting the theme. In the B section of the second chorus (1’24”) we can hear a descending hexatonal scale, a typical Thelonious Monk pattern.

At the end of the second chorus (1’38”) something unusual happens: the band expects the pianist to continue his improvisation, but instead he has already finished his solo. In another circumstance the next soloist would start playing almost immediately, but in this case a whole chorus passes before another musician starts to improvise.

Thelonious Monk was a master in the use of silences, after all, even the first solo chorus started with four measures of pause. For this reason, his companions wait a good 32 measures before they are convinced that the pianist has really finished his improvisation!

The second solo is by trumpeter Bill Hardman (2’04”) and Monk surprises us again by deciding to keep silent during the third and fourth chorus (2’55”), which are then accompanied only by bass and drums. This is followed by improvisations by saxophonist Johnny Griffin (3’46”) and drummer and band leader Art Blakey (5’30”).

Rhythm a Ning proves how far Thelonious Monk was from the clichés of his era. With his playing and use of silences, he manages to turn a classic rhythm change into a surprising and unique piece.

Until next Monday!

This song is part of the list How to learn 100 jazz standards

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