Thelonious Monk - Straight No Chaser
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Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (DVD)
Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser highlights the life of one of the most extraordinary individuals in the history of jazz. Using precious film footage shot in the late 1930s of the great pianist and composer, this film provides a special opportunity to savor the work of this one-of-a-kind musical revolutionary.]]>
This exemplary documentary about seminal jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk reaps the benefits of multiple blessings, including the skilled editorial hand of director Charlotte Zwerin and the patronage of executive producer (and erstwhile jazz pianist) Clint Eastwood. Most vital is the use of extensive 1968 footage, shot by Michael and Christian Blackwood, documenting the sometimes moody, sometimes puckish Monk in the studio, on tour, and off stage, which on its own would make this essential jazz viewing.
In post-World War II America, few cultural upheavals matched bebop for sheer exhilaration. Spawned by jazz musicians whose paydays typically came with larger swing ensembles, bop was as much bastard as stepchild, refining the technical ambitions of its parent while breaking free of swing's formalism to play fast and loose with harmony, melody, and tempo. That mercurial spirit made heroes of high-flying, technically flamboyant players like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell. Monk, by contrast, was as distinctive for his silences, crafting often skeletal melodies distinguished by unexpected, skewed harmonies. At one point dubbed the "high priest of bebop," he was more Zen archer, threading notes, warping chord structure, or stabbing "wrong" keys with a seeming looseness that in hindsight sounds as precise as haiku.
Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser provides an intelligent portrait of this often reclusive, sometimes difficult artist, including telling glimpses of his volatility. A stormy studio session with Teo Macero, then Columbia Records' preeminent jazz producer, speaks volumes about Monk's very private approach to his muse. Perceptive interviews and glimpses of Monk's sunnier moments provide added depth, yet the real triumph is the generous catalog of classic Monk songs captured on camera. --Sam Sutherland
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He liked to turn in circles. The only musician he really liked was Johnny Griffin. When Teo Macero spoke him in the recording studio he said, "I heard you before you said it."
When two women in Europe ask him for his "signature," he sits down on a bench in the airport, signs for them, and says "You're welcome."
It is obvious that he is never really comfortable with anyone but his wife and Nica de Koenigswarter. His introduction of "Pannonica" in the Baroness's house in New Jersey is the only time in the whole documentary when he sounds truly relaxed. Fittingly, it is to her that he confides one day, "I am very seriously ill."
His son gives crucial context to Monk's mental problems, which were never clearly diagnosed. His sudden retirement from music in 1971 remains a mystery. But, knowing him as we know him from this superb documentary, we understand that his gift was a fugitive thing that could be taken away at any moment.
In two interludes, Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan play his music. Their efforts make painfully obvious that no one but Monk himself could really play Monk.
The world of music would be much poorer if this precious piece of film had never been shot.
Attention pour les français par rapport à la zone même si sous mac j'ai pu configurer mon lecteur DVD sans problème.
In the vein of eccentric behavior, a friend of mine told me about seeing Thelonious Monk live at Shelly's Manne Hole in Hollywood back in the late 1960's. It was a rare appearance for Monk in L.A. and it was not long afterward that the Manne Hole closed, as I recall. He said that Thelonious stopped playing in the middle of the set and got up from the piano and began to spin around in a slow circles like a dervish. My friend showed me how Monk did it.
My friend said he was disappointed. He didn't pay to see Monk dance; he wanted to hear him play piano. But I didn't give it too much thought at the time. It seemed harmless, eccentric.
About fifteen years ago, I first saw "Straight, No Chaser." It was a shock to see Monk doing what my friend described so long before. It looked much more ominous than his description. There was one shot of him where he was spinning around and his eyes momentarily went dull for half a second as if he had a mild stroke or seizure. Even more shocking was how poorly Monk was functioning at times as he appeared in this movie. Although I'm not a physician, the word "brain tumor" just leapt into my mind. That he died of a cerebral hemorrhage confirms my guess. It was so shocking that I think I missed most of the film
I recently saw this film again. The commentary by Monk's son was most poignant in describing his own childhood, coping with Monk's strange behavior and hospitalizations. It didn't sound to me as if anyone really understood what was wrong with Monk at the time.
Rethinking this film's significance: what Monk accomplished --- impressive as it was --- is even more impressive when you think that while he was writing and performing, in the background, was this thing destroying him inside his own head. He was struggling and straining to keep going against odds that were gradually slipping away from him. Every day, life got just a little harder for him. The effort eventually overcame him. No wonder he stopped playing.
Monk was lucky in leaving his unique music as his legacy under these circumstances. He was also lucky in having married Nellie. She was a great woman who clearly kept him going and loved him and took care of him. We were lucky that he married Nellie as well for those same reasons.
The music choices were well placed and add to the bittersweet quality of this video portrait. There was always the playful quality of Monk's music, in a way reminiscent of Erik Satie, but deeply rooted in the blues.
The film does have a few comic moments. The business where they had shipped a trunk full of empty Coke bottles halfway around the world in order to return them for deposit, struck me as hilarious. I guess you had to grow up in an earlier era for that one. Also, the "Copenhagen pants" and the "chicken livers" scenes were pretty funny.
The exact medical facts will probably never be known. But this is a story of a great artist---and may I add, a good man---who suffered a terrible and tragic fate.
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