Crepuscule with Thelonious: Two Pieces of Monk

A closer look at a couple of favorites.

“Crepuscule with Nellie”: Monk named this romantic yet angular piece for his wife. It’s through composed, meaning the piece is played “straight, no solos” for either one chorus or two. “Crepuscule” can be rendered on piano alone, and Monk recorded a solo version on November 15, 1971, albeit one that softens some of the composition’s dynamics. It’s more famed as an ensemble work, and “Crepuscule” premiered on the 1957 album Monk’s Music for a seven piece group. It then appeared on the Town Hall big band recording and subsequently became part of Monk’s 1960s quartet repertoire. My preferred version, and the one that best articulates the things I discuss below, is found on the quartet’s 1963 Columbia release Criss Cross.

The structure of “Crepuscule” breaks down into two 8-bar A sections, an 8-bar bridge, and a final 8-bar A segment, plus coda. However, given the calm tempo, it doesn’t feel like a typical 32-bar tune. This is more of an abstract, engrossing journey.

The A section begins with a tender yet woozy “fanfare,” a descent and ascent of parallel sixths that lands at the end of the first bar on an inquisitive B-flat minor-major seventh chord. This is answered in the second measure by a rising bass figure and an alarm-like triplet motif. Monk used sixths in a few of his other tunes; a fairly “neutral” interval, it can sound happy or strange, depending on the context. (Or in the walking sixths of “Misterioso”, the effect is somewhat humorous.) Bar 3 switches to a comforting melodic line that moves through three adjusted seventh chords (A-flat, D-flat, G-flat) and, by the fifth bar, C minor. Notice that right before the fifth bar, Monk drops in a small triplet “preparation” - I’ll return to this later. That C minor in bar 5 sounds like a resolution, but it doesn’t last long, as the piano runs down chromatically to G-flat, with Monk hammering that note as if skidding to a stop. Quite a lot of “Crepuscule” involves temporary resolutions that are followed by a disruption (or re-alignment) of some sort, and only a few bars in, we’ve already been alerted to this.

The sixth bar of the A section (preceded again by a triplet figure) descends through a softer sequence of suspended minor seventh chords alternating with dominant sevenths - not unlike an instance in “Round Midnight”, although the actual voicing of the chords recalls part of “Ruby My Dear”. This sequence ends on A-flat major in bar 7, providing yet another quick resolution that is followed by a sardonic slide to a diminished G-flat chord to end the section. The four-note melody that lines this unexpected shift is F, E flat, B flat, and C, which I think of as the tune’s punchline, for lack of a better word. The A section is then repeated.

The bridge begins by turning A-flat minor 7 into A-flat major, linked by a chromatic descent in the inner voicing. The second bar uses similar motion to link Bm7 to B-flat m7, and at this point, it’s as if the bridge ponders which way it shall go - up, down, sideways, or elsewhere? Bar 3 answers with a definitive climb and descent over E-flat, leading into a majestic expansion of the A section’s “punchline” resolution. Although in this iteration, more notes are added to the melodic shape, and it resolves definitively in A-flat major. This seems to me to be the peak emotional denouement of the entire piece. However, the bridge still has two more bars to go, and Monk, not content to stay in one place, adjourns the peace with somewhat dissonant displacements of the punchline motif. This, incidentally, is the part of the chart that seems hardest to perform correctly, particularly in the 1957 recording, where the accents are timid.

The final C section replays the A section, including the shift to the diminished G-flat chord in the last bar. But in the coda, Monk immediately repeats this same melody yet changes the ending chord to A-flat major (where C becomes a major third, instead of the tritone to G-flat). In other words, Monk redoes that one phrase to make it “happier,” but he’s not done yet. He raises the same phrase to end on B-flat major - held dramatically - then hits a B major chord - again held dramatically - the finally lands on C major, as if he cannot help taking the song “up.” As the concluding C chord is held, an upper register echo of the opening “fanfare” theme is heard as a final jest. (He doesn’t do this in the 1971 solo version, though.)

Two interesting characteristics of the piece: first, the prevalence of triplet figures. These are deployed at the end of a given bar to precede a downbeat melody note in the next, and they subliminally prepare the listener for key phrases of the piece. Sometimes they are fast (the “alarm” bit at the end of bar 2, followed by a pause), sometimes partially rendered (fifth and sixth bars of the bridge), most often in quarter notes (bar 4 of A section) or eighths (bar 5). Since “Crepuscule” is played in a slow 4/4, the triplets put pause in the tune’s momentum - as if slipping outside the pace - and are thus essential to the considerate and regal feel.

Another key element of “Crepuscule” is the chromatic movement of the “fanfare” (the first few notes, at least) and the first threads of the bridge. Chromaticism allows Monk mobility in unexpected transitions, and it keeps the piece from settling in any one zone.

In keeping with the title, the overall mood of “Crepuscule with Nellie” is romantic, loving, and observant. Monk doesn’t dwell in static feeling, though, nor is he one for blinkered sentimentality. “Crepuscule” blends moments of comfort and reflection with moments of uncertainty and transposition. In the grand scheme of this tune, the sense of Monk the creative realist is writ large. You can also hear it in similarly romantic works like “Ruby My Dear” and “Reflections”, not to mention the stingers of some of his blues pieces.

“Coming on the Hudson”: This composition isn’t a popular, front-line Monk entry, but I’ve always found it intriguing. My first exposure was to the 1958 versions with tenor Johnny Griffin, which are decent enough, and then I came to prefer the later studio take with Charlie Rouse, available as a bonus cut on the Criss Cross reissue. In my review of that CD, I refer to a mood of expectancy in “Coming on the Hudson”, and I’d like to examine how that mood is conjured.

For one thing, while this is a “blowing” tune, the relaxed 4/4 pulse doesn’t drive the melodic information so much as support it in a most basic way. The theme, rather limited in content, is composed of two distinct phrases. The first is heard at the beginning of the A section, a hesitant rise of five notes that links an unusual chord sequence of Gm7 - Am7 - A-flat m7. I hear this phrase as a musical “question,” with a punctuation mark provided by an isolated note/chord in bar 2. (This hit reminds me of the jarring accents of “Evidence”.) The “answer” comes in a six-note descending phrase that links the third and fourth measures. These six notes perfectly match the syllables of the tune’s title, so I’ll refer to them as the title phrase. The last note lingers into a fifth bar of easy-going swing and then the A section repeats.

As is customary in so many Monk tunes, the bridge reworks part of the A section - in this case, the title phrase is transposed up a fifth and has two different notes at the end. Because of the elevated pitches and subtle change of the “Hudson” notes, the listener might expect further transformation or a resolution of some sort. But Monk only repeats the phrase again, and then chops the fourth bar of the bridge in half (2/4), in effect leaving a three and a half measure bridge.

The A section repeats with one crucial change: the “coming on the Hudson” phrase is followed by a reversal of the last two notes, which brings a dash of optimism, so to speak. (Whereas the first iterations leave the listener hanging.) So now I come to the precarious part - explaining the “narrative” of the piece. Well, to my ears, the initial melody phrase indicates someone awaiting the arrival of something. (I mention a boat in my Criss Cross review, given the piece’s title.) They’re looking and waiting, and in the bridge, they do so from a different perspective but with the same unfulfilled result. At last, in the final A section, the transformational tag suggests new hope of some sort, or a renewed optimism, what have you. The charm of “Coming on the Hudson” is that it’s resigned to “expecting” something, yet it doesn’t sound dejected. It captures an edge-of-your-seat suspense thanks to deliberate spacing and variation of the melody, along with the subdued tempo (especially in the 1962 recording).

Speaking of Charlie Rouse, he enters his solo just a beat or two early, and I can’t tell if that was intentional, or if the truncated bridge knocked him askew.

Back to Essays