“It looked like it might collapse at any moment.” Geoff Dyer on Thelonious Monk. 

September 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

From Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (London: Picador, 1996, pp. 38-39):

“You had to see Monk to hear his music properly. The most important instrument in the group – whatever the format – was his body. He didn’t play the piano really. His body was his instrument and the piano was just a means of getting the sound out of his body at the rate and in the quantities he wanted. If you blotted out everything except his body you would think he was playing the drums, foot going up and down on the hi-hat, arms reaching over each other, His body fills in the gaps in the music; without seeing him it always sounds like something’s missing but when you see him even piano solos acquire a sound as full as a quartets. The eye hears what the ear misses…

Part of jazz is the illusion of spontaneity and Monk played the piano as though he’d never seen one before. Came at it from all angles, using his elbows, taking chops at it, rippling through the keys like they were a deck of cards, fingers jabbing at them like they were hot to the touch or tottering around them like a woman in heels – playing it all wrong as far as classical piano went. Everything came out crooked, at an angle, not as you expected…Played with his fingers splayed, flattened out over the keys, fingertips almost looking like they were pointed upward when they should have been arched.

He played each note as if astonished by the previous one, as though every touch of his fingers on the keyboard was correcting an error and this touch in turn became an error to be corrected and so the tune never quite ended up the way it was meant to. Sometimes the song seemed to have turned itself inside out or to have been entirely constructed from mistakes…

If Monk had built a bridge he’d have taken away the bits that considered essential until all that was left were the decorative parts – but somehow he would have made the ornamentation absorb the strength of the supporting spars so it was like everything was built around what wasn’t there. It shouldn’t have held together but it did and the excitement came from the way that it looked like it might collapse at any moment…”

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