March 19, 2010

Avoiding the Elevator Shaft

Monk's DreamThelonious Monk once said, “All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians.” The problem for Monk was that he was working in trigonometry and most other musicians of his time were at best in advanced algebra. His conjugated music was notoriously difficult rhythmically and harmonically, and, of course, Monk himself was absolutely uncompromising in his playing, making soloing with him a challenge for all but the bravest (see Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane). Many listeners also found his music jagged and perhaps even unpleasant to listen to. Having just finished reading a biography of Monk, I’ve been listening to his music more and more recently and enjoying a new appreciation for it.
     One song I’m returning to again and again is “Five Spot Blues” from Monk’s Dream (1963), Monk’s first Columbia album and his best-selling LP. He first recorded this song several years earlier for Thelonious in Action (Riverside, 1958), a live date at New York’s Five Spot Café. His contract with Columbia was a sign that Monk had made it – gone from underground to mainstream – and many feel that his music lost a certain edginess. I think Monk was always an innovator and explorer right up to the end and Monk’s Dream has a sense of him coming into his own.
     Coltrane once said about playing Monk’s music, “Miss one chord and you feel like you’re falling down an elevator shaft.” Plowing straight ahead seems to be the best strategy and that’s what Charlie Rouse does here on sax on “Five Spot Blues.” Rouse is often slighted as a Monk soloist – he had the misfortune of following both Rollins and Coltrane in Monk’s band and suffered for it. He easily avoids the elevator shaft on this tune and seems to almost out-Monk Monk, playing with an angular and bluesy fervor. Monk on his solo explores the repetitive riff of the song in his usual obsessive-compulsive, and always interesting, way. John Ore on bass and particularly Frankie Dunlop on drums keep the proceedings percolating throughout the brief, three-minute song.


  1. especially diggin' the rhythm section on "Five Spot Blues"...thanks for the turn-on.

  2. Yes, it really pops and bumps and bubbles along. Makes you want to get up and dance around in a little circle like Monk used to do.

  3. Rouse always gets slighted but really he was Monk's most sympathetic partner. His playing on this record is gorgeous

  4. One problem for Rouse, at least in the ears of critics, was that he had a somewhat dour tone. I've heard it described as "adenoidal." Harold Land was another saxophonist who was often criticized for his tone specifically. Both could play like the dickens, however.