"Three Is One": Thelonious Monk's Influence On Joanne Brackeen, Kris Davis & Helen Sung
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"Three Is One": Thelonious Monk's Influence On Joanne Brackeen, Kris Davis, & Helen Sung

September 13, 2018 | by Richard Scheinin

Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk was born 101 years ago, but his music never gets old. In every note, there’s something to love. His tunes are accessible yet mysterious, easy to sing yet difficult to play, perfectly constructed yet tricky to decipher. And despite all the seeming contradictions, there’s an essential rightness about everything he created: “Monk, he played music just like the earth grows trees,” says pianist Joanne Brackeen, who has played his tunes for more than 60 years. 

One of three pianists who will explore Monk’s music at SFJAZZ on Oct. 10, the anniversary of his birth, she adds this: “Once you’ve heard Monk, you’ve heard Monk – if you really listen. He has little puzzles that he gives to you and they can mean whatever they mean.”

She sounds as cryptic as Thelonious himself.

“Two is one,” he once said.

Think about it.

“The vibe of Monk is spreading right now,” says Brackeen, 80, an NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) Jazz Master who will share the stage at SFJAZZ with two pianists half her age, Kris Davis and Helen Sung. For all three, Monk – as pianist, composer and bandleader – remains a motivator, an instigator and a model for creating art that matters.

“His music is super-complicated and at the same time, not – and to me that’s genius,” says Sung, who curated a three-night tribute to Monk last April at Jazz at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. “Monk never sounded like anybody but himself. His rhythmic language, his melodic language, it’s so unique. It’s like a distillation of him.”

“There’s always these really great nuggets of ideas in every Monk tune and that just unlocks the imagination for me,” says Davis, whose music explores connections between jazz improvisation and contemporary classical composition. “It’s why I love playing Monk tunes. It’s like he gets you started, so you can explore it and develop it in your own voice, and I think that’s why people keep coming back to Monk. He was just so forward thinking that nobody really had any idea of how forward thinking he was.”

On Oct. 10, each of the three pianists will play solo, then in duo combinations. Finally, the three will come together as a trio. That’s the plan, anyway. It will be a “let’s-see-what-happens kind of night,” says Sung. “And sometimes that can yield the coolest things, because you have no preconceptions.”

L to R: Joanne Brackeen, Kris Davis & Helen Sung

Brackeen – who spent years playing in the bands of Art Blakey, Stan Getz and Joe Henderson – thinks Monk (who died in 1982) would appreciate the fact that women “are enjoying more freedom as instrumentalists these days.” For SFJAZZ to invite three women to interpret Monk’s music is a development “that he would love, I think. He may come down for a brief visit to listen to us.”

We asked each of the three pianists to discuss her relationship to Monk’s music – how she clicked with the songs to begin with, and how she continues to unlock his unique musical language.

JOANNE BRACKEEN

She grew up around Los Angeles, took a handful of piano lessons as a child, but never studied music formally. Yet by the time she was a teenager – this was in the 1950s – she was gigging with saxophonists Teddy Edwards and Dexter Gordon. She met Ornette Coleman, who lived in Los Angeles, and she became friends with the musicians in his inner circle, including drummer Billy Higgins, who later recorded with Monk. She and Higgins lived in Pacoima, on the outskirts of LA, and she would pick him up in her old Ford and drive him to rehearsals in town: “And Billy used to talk about Monk and sing his tunes. And I already knew those tunes – I can’t say how. Monk to me always felt familiar, like walking across the grass, very natural and normal. I didn’t have to work to get inside his music. There was no space between us – same thing with Ornette’s music, and very little music is like that for me.”

When she moved to New York in the mid-1960s, Brackeen would often go to the Village Vanguard to hear Monk and his quartet. She never introduced herself to Monk, never had a conversation with him: “I felt like I already knew him. When you know somebody’s music, it’s the same thing – it’s that person translated into sound” says Brackeen, who is reminded of a story. “One time, I was just back from a tour in Europe with my friend Clint Houston, the bass player, and there used to be a place called the West Boondocks on 17th Street and 10th Avenue in New York.” Brackeen lived in the neighborhood “and we’d gone over there to hang out,” she recalls, “and Clint was drinking his beers and I was drinking my waters with cranberry juice, and all of a sudden I saw this image of Monk in my head, and he was out in the backyard of where he lived and he was moving the clouds around. Okay, so a few minutes later we looked up – and Nica was sitting at the bar.” This was the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, Monk’s patron, for whom he wrote the ballad “Pannonica” and at whose home he lived, on and off, for years. “So I went over to tell her what I’d just seen in my head and she more or less shrugged and said, `Of course, he does that. He does that all the time.’ It was as if I’d told her, `Monk wears a green suit.’”

KRIS DAVIS

Growing up in Calgary, Alberta, Davis first studied classical piano, then discovered jazz in high school: Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett. “But it wasn’t until I went to college in Toronto – when his tunes started popping up in class and getting called on the bandstand – that I actually got into Monk. I didn’t fully get what he was about until I started playing his tunes and listening to his recordings.”

His musical language, she decided, “comes down to rhythm.”

Over the course of a 50-minute phone conversation, she sings the melodies to several of his tunes – “Evidence,” “Bright Mississippi,” “Raise Four” – to illustrate how intensely rhythmic his melodies are. “Raise Four,” for example, is a blues. Monk repeats its melody — derived from just three notes — over and over again, piston-like, landing with a jab on the third beat of each measure. His rhythmic approach “can be stubborn,” says Davis, who relates that characteristic to her own compositions and improvisations: “Sometimes I’ll take an idea and push it beyond the boundary of what might seem natural or make sense to the listener: `Why is she doing that?’”

Monk, she says, “inspired me to bring out those qualities, for sure.”

Now when she plays his tunes, she strives to invent landscapes in which those nuggets – Monk’s rhythm-charged melodic fragments – act as touchstones. “I can go into all sorts of other zones, but that little nugget of information is still there. When I’m improvising, I can play something very atonal and obscure – colors and clashes on the piano, big bashes of sound. But then I bring that nugget back in, and every time you repeat it, it makes it stronger and more bold, more vivid. So you’re hearing Monk’s tune again, but in a totally different landscape.

Some pianists spend years de-coding Monk’s language: how he attacks certain notes or voices certain chords. But going down that rabbit hole with Monk can “be a little bit of a trap as an improviser,” says Davis, whose collaborators have ranged from composer John Zorn to saxophonist J.D. Allen, with whom she performed a tribute to Monk at Duke University in October. She prefers to use Monk as a springboard. Over the years, she has discovered that long beat cycles – inspired by saxophonist Steve Coleman’s M-Base theories – can merge neatly with Monk’s melodies. Likewise, Davis enjoys “taking things from the contemporary classical scene when I play his tunes. That language seems to fit really well with Monk’s ideas and his rhythmic approach. For me, it’s really interesting to bring in harmonies that come from composers like (Luciano) Berio and (Gyorgy) Ligeti and blend it with what Monk is doing… He just opens up floodgates for exploring new ideas.”

Even for children, Davis finds, Monk’s compositions can “spark creativity, right from the first moment.” She recalls teaching piano years ago to beginner students, who would latch right onto those catchy melodies: “I could teach a Monk tune in the first lesson. It just ignited something for these students who had never even improvised before. That’s just such a testament to Monk, that he can connect to people at every level, at every age and at every stage of ability on the instrument.”

HELEN SUNG

She ticks off some of her favorite Monk tunes: “Bye-Ya,” “Reflections,” “In Walked Bud,” “Ask Me Now,” all of which might make her playlist for the San Francisco concert. She mentions another tune she loves, “Evidence,” then asks, “Who would think to write a melody like that?” She likens Monk to a boxer (his jabbing attacks) and to a dancer (“that infectiousness that gets you moving”). His music contains “all these angles. His approach to the piano is not the standard approach. It’s not the whole linear fluency of bebop, right? It’s not like Bud Powell or the other bop players – Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan – where the notes have a very fluid, even consistency. The only way I can describe it is `geometric,’ because he’s thinking in three dimensions. Because his notes all have different densities, and how he places that in the bar, the rhythmic feel, is like no one else.”

Not that she always understood what he was up to. Like Davis, Sung began as a classical pianist, and Monk, when she first heard him, seemed to come from another planet: “I remember this colleague of mine saying, `It’s obvious that Monk doesn’t know what he’s doing pianistically.’ Well, I transcribed a lot of his work, and he knows what he’s doing. The way he approaches his runs – it’s like he’s carved them into the piano, because it’s so strong and deep, the impression he leaves. He carves it into your ears.”

She didn’t get into jazz until she was 20 or 21, toward the end of her undergraduate years at the University of Texas in Austin. Awakening to jazz was “a revolutionary moment” for Sung, who was accepted into the Thelonious Monk Institute in 1995. Her teachers included a number of Monk’s contemporaries: Clark Terry, Jackie McLean, Jimmy Heath and Barry Harris, the pianist, who was one of Monk’s closest friends. Harris told her how “he and Monk would sit at those pianos at the Baroness’s house” – Nica again – “and play all day. I remember him saying, `Monk would play the same song all day.’”

Tellingly, Sung finds that some of her “best arrangements (of Monk’s tunes) have come from just playing one of his songs over and over again for a long time, and something in the song – it may be a lone element, it may be two – will strike me and I will focus on that.” Like Davis, Sung looks for a nugget or seed within Monk’s tunes – a fragment to lock onto and turn into something new. With Monk’s “Epistrophy,” this process led Sung to the song’s bridge – its connecting material, the so-called B section, which some listeners might overlook: “But I thought, `Man, this is a soulful melody here,’” says Sung, who built her arrangement of “Epistrophy” almost entirely around the bridge.

With Monk, she says, “You have to deal with his very strong personality that shines through everything he wrote. To play that, but then to come up with something that’s you, too – that’s the challenge. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of his music. For me, it’s a life-long love affair. You just keep getting to deeper levels, being startled by the beauty.”

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.