Two More Pieces of Monk

Following my earlier essay on two Thelonious Monk compositions, here are a couple more:

“Off Minor”: This tune dates from one of Monk’s early Blue Note sessions (1947) and appeared throughout his career. Usually set at a medium tempo, it’s a dark piece, more for the chords than the melody phrases (which are striking in themselves). Almost every voicing is unsettled in some way – “off minor,” I suppose.

The A section melody is relatively simple – a six-note g-minor line descending from the first bar into the second, followed by a turnaround of dominant seventh chords, so far so bop. In the second four bars, the same line repeats but ends on an E note above a B-flat chord, the first hint of dissonance, and the ensuing chord is an unsettling D sharp four/flat nine, further confounded by a B note in the piano melody. (Or you might call this chord a continuation of the altered B-flat with a D bass. Either way...) This isn’t just off-minor, it’s a whole new bag for jazz, especially when you land on this chord at the end of a phrase and let it sit there. The 8-bar A section repeats again with the same content.

The first bar of the bridge starts on D-flat, steps up to D, and then goes into a series of ii-V changes beginning in B-flat. The ii-V is probably the most common chord change in jazz, usually leading back to the tonic chord, or another ii-V. Monk’s “Off Minor” bridge could have been somewhat normal, just looking at the basic changes – b-flat minor to E-flat major, b-minor to E-major, e-minor to A to D – but these are broken up via length and voicings. The first change (b-flat to E-flat) takes place over one bar; the second (b to E) over two bars; the third (e to A to D) over four bars. The melody atop these changes gives the bridge some really tart sounds, such as the minor ninth in bar 4, and the unresolved D chord at the end of the bridge. This is a prime example of Monk taking a common premise, thickening it up, knocking it this way and that, and emerging with something totally unique. After the bridge, the A section repeats one more time, completing a 32-bar cycle.

The defining ‘off-minorness’ of this tune has to do with all of the intervals of a third. For example, there’s the melodic jump from bar 1 to 2 (D to F), the melody note D above bass notes B and B-flat in bar 3, and the stacked thirds in the altered B-flat/D chords that end the A section. Now, thirds are obviously so common in everybody’s music that it may seem silly to mention it, and Monk often relies on thirds in orthodox ways, like some of the melody notes in “Round Midnight”, or the harmonized theme of “Blue Monk”. But in “Off Minor”, Monk zeroes in on the third interval (major or minor) as a sound in itself. It pervades almost the whole piece in one way or another. Of course, these thirds aren’t just part of a series of minor triads, which would be static and dull. Monk further alters or displaces the chords, and when you run several of these spiky voicings in sequence – or emphasize one at the end of a phrase – you wind up outside of traditional harmony.

One more quick point, which I’ve kind of already made: the recurring emphasis on the strange chord reverses the standard practice of resolving dissonance. Usually, a tune ventures outward at some point in its progression and ties up loose ends as it comes to the end of its cycle. In “Off Minor”, Monk pushes the harmony out at the end of each eight bars, sort of a cliffhanger that keeps feeding the tune’s motion.

I think the most instructive “Off Minor” recording is the original Blue Note of October 1947 (available on Genius of Modern Music Volume I), as it is a piano trio performance and one can closely hear how Monk voices this tune. His first improvised chorus is very interesting, as well. “Off Minor” also appears on the June 1957 Monk’s Music session, where the theme is expanded by multiple horns (and flubbed a bit by the trumpet, unfortunately). Solos from Coleman Hawkins, Ray Copeland, Monk, and bass and drums are all enjoyable, though I chuckle at how that altered D chord pulls everyone up at one point or another. The later quartet with tenor Charlie Rouse recorded “Off Minor” a few times; I’m listening to the 1965 Newport version as I type, and Rouse glides easily through the tune, rerunning a couple of licks here and there. But if you want to hear the ultimate weirdness and danger of “Off Minor” – the historic sound of Monk infecting the jazz biosphere – you have to listen to that Blue Note version.

“Ruby My Dear”: This is my favorite Monk composition, and it seems quite simple at heart – a slow pace, ii-V-I changes in the main section, some modulations in the bridge, a few guiding melody notes on top of all that, and voila. Yet Monk expands this simple chassis into wide romantic proportions via his usual tricks, chord voicings and dramatic phrasing.

The A section starts with a standard ii-V-I progression – Fm9 to B-flat 7 to E-flat major – voiced beautifully, especially as it begins with a prominent ninth note, giving it a lofty, thoughtful feel. Chromatic passing chords lead to the second iteration, Gm9 to C7 to F major, and a few more passing chords lead to the third level, B-flat minor to E-flat 7 to A-flat major. Each pass raises and intensifies the melody, and it follows a rule of three – once, twice, third time’s a charm. The last A-flat chord has some internal motion and modulates nicely to A-major, followed by another rise to a suspended B. So here again we have Monk stating something fairly simple at the outset, only to expand its potential within a few bars, leaving a question mark at the end.

The bridge reshapes the main theme over a happy A-major, and then the scenery changes to a couple of bars of light boogie-woogie. Notice the rule of three governs the bridge as well: the boogie riff goes from A to B-flat to B, and then it dissolves. The darker half of the bridge again rises through three chords, C-minor, D-minor, E-flat minor, before the E-flat morphs into a couple of diminished chords that indicate a return to the A section. This bridge makes quite the journey in eight bars, like a little field trip in the midst of the tune.

The final A section follows the first one closely, although it detours to a suspended E chord that comes out of nowhere. Then there’s a little turnaround and the tune returns to the top, or if it’s the end of the performance, there’s another sequence (including a grand whole-tone run) that eventually closes on a D-flat chord. Neither of these twists is expected, and that’s the beauty of them. In particular, that big E chord throws open a big window, temporarily freezing the tune’s intimacy, and the closing sequence really teases the listener, making one wonder exactly where the song is going to wind up. (Monk often includes a separate introduction to “Ruby My Dear”, but it varies from one performance to the next.)

So what’s so great about “Ruby”? The richness of the harmonies is one thing, but it’s mainly how smoothly all of these changes are put together. It builds up so easily and inevitably from one segment to the next, all the while tending to a calm, four-note melodic phrase that never loses its simplicity and directness. Meanwhile, all of the passing chords and counterpoint give the tune that rolling contour that can be found in other Monk opuses like “Crepuscule with Nellie” and “Reflections”. It tells a little story, and/or makes a personal testimony, however you want to hear it. In short, it’s a lovely tune with a lot of depth.

The original Blue Note recording of “Ruby My Dear” (Oct. 1947, same as “Off Minor”) is good but like a stark blueprint, and there are a couple of enjoyable live versions done with Charlie Rouse. I think the best versions are the one with John Coltrane from 1957 and the unaccompanied take from the Columbia album Solo Monk. The way Coltrane deals with the melody and makes the tune “sing” is fantastic, while Monk’s solo piano performance brings the harmonies to the fore with crystal clarity.

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