Thelonius Monk: Brilliant Corners
Number 992, of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
From the opening moments it’s clear Brilliant Corners is different to the Big Band stylings of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, which I’ve written about previously in this series. Thelonious Monk opens the record tinkling on his piano. His diminished chords sound completely wrong on first listen, strange, jarring and discordant. The rest of his band joins in a herky-jerky passage that bumps up and down the stave. Suddenly we’re off on a groovy jazz shuffle, saxophones freestyling over Monk’s off kilter notes, but just as quickly things slow back to half time. And then speed up again. Rinse and repeat.
Apparently this opening track, named after the record itself, was recorded 25 times and pieced together from various takes because the band could never get through it in one go. So complicated is Monk’s composition. The thing is, the dexterity never comes off trite. The tracks don’t ever lose touch with reality. They’re just….different, and exciting.
Brilliant Corners gives us moments inspired by 12 bar blues (Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are), candlelit romance (Pannonica), and even a vaguely Ragtime take on Bing Crosby’s I Surrender, Dear played solo on the piano by Monk. The whole collection is stitched together by Monk’s unusual melodies and constant tempo changes. It’s a cool ride, man.
This record shows me a lineage to later, weirder free jazz recordings by the likes of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and even contemporary freak folks like Mats Gustaffson. You can sense a world of new noise was opening up. Likewise, it’s suddenly become clear to me why the Beat Generation was so enamoured with Jazz during the 50s. I could never envision them sitting around looking cool and listening to some excited Big Band. Instead, the cerebral and freewheeling Brilliant Corners paints a much more accurate (probably romantic) picture of Kerouac and his peers, hanging out in dive bars, getting drunk and rhapsodising about a new, free world.