Looking at Monk
The phenomenon of piano players committing themselves to a study of Thelonious Monk’s compositions is neither new nor unusual; it probably started with Monk’s friend Bud Powell, who cut a wonderful version of “Off Minor” during his historic trio session for the Roost label in 1947 and recorded an album called A Portrait of Thelonious in Paris in 1961. Perhaps no one, however, has got so deeply under the skin of Monk’s music as the German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, who appeared at the Cafe Oto in London last night as part of an all-star free jazz quartet with the saxophonist Evan Parker, the bassist John Edwards and the drummer Eddie Prevost.
Eight years ago Schlippenbach released a three-CD set on the Intakt label called Monk’s Casino, in which he and four other musicians (including the remarkable bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall) performed all 70 of Monk’s known compositions, arranged as a sort of giant medley and recorded in three one-hour sets at the A-Trane club in Berlin, the pianist’s home town. It was, I think, one of the great achievements of modern music, a phenomenally detailed and multi-faceted exploration of a seemingly inexhaustible resource. There don’t seem to be such things as canonical works in jazz any more, but if there were, this would deserve to stand high among them.
I thought of Monk’s Casino towards the end of the first of last night’s two enthralling sets, when Parker, Edwards and Prevost fell silent and the pianist spent several minutes creating what sounded to me, at least, like a miniature distillation of that three-hour epic. All of Monk seemed to be in those few minutes — and all of the player himself, too, because there is nothing imitative about Schlippenbach, who shines the light of a piercingly original intellect upon whatever material he happens to be investigating (a couple of years ago he released two fascinating albums of serial compositions for solo piano: Twelve-Tone Tales Vols 1 and 2, also on Intakt).
Schlippenbach was 75 last month. His recent releases include Blackheath, a performance with Prevost on the drummer’s own Matchless label, recorded at Blackheath Halls in South London in 2008 and consisting of a solo improvisation by each and a 25-minute duo invention called “Skipping With Monk”. His latest solo album is called Schlippenbach Plays Monk, in which his own brief interludes are slipped between new thoughts on eight of Thelonious’s tunes. Once again you can hear his principal characteristic: the warmth beneath an apparently austere surface. I listened to it on the way home, and I know I’ll be playing it often.
It was nice to meet him again during the interval, more than 40 years since I interviewed him for the Melody Maker during the annual Anti-Festival held at Berlin’s Quartier Latin club, an event set up in opposition to the formal Berliner Jazztage at the Philharmonic Hall (he was polite enough to pretend to remember me). In the mid-60s he had founded the Globe Unity Orchestra, the first multi-national ensemble devoted to the new jazz; now, like Parker and Prevost, who are also in or approaching their eighth decade, he is an elder statesman of a movement that, on a night like this, seems capable of infinite self-renewal.
* The photograph of Alexander von Schlippenbach is by Manfred Rinderspacher and is taken from the insert to Schlippenbach Plays Monk (Intakt CD 207). Parker, Edwards and Prevost are at the Cafe Oto again tonight (May 29), with the German trombonist Christof Thewes as their guest.