January/February 2004

Thelonious Moog: Moogioso

What happens when you combine a passion for the music of Thelonious Monk with an overriding compulsion for vintage analog synths and a decidedly irreverent streak? You get something on the order of Yes We Didn't (Grownup), easily the most unusual Monk tribute album since Hal Willner's eccentric 1984 all-star project That's the Way I Feel Now (A&M). (Think Wendy Carlos' Switched On series.)

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Thelonious Moog

Armed with an odd arsenal of vintage gear including theremin, vocoder, clavinet and ARP, Moog, Sequential Circuits, Synthi and Buchla synthesizers, Nashville-based producer-arranger Joe "Guido" Welsh joined forces with his longtime friend and collaborator, veteran Chicago-based jazz pianist Steve Million, to form the zany duo known as Thelonious Moog. Their self-produced debut recording (available only through theloniousmoog.com) is a rare hoot for Monk aficionados and neophytes alike. "Guido's goal as a producer was to make it fun and accessible," says Million. "He wanted people who aren't into jazz to be able to dig this, which I thought was a cool idea."

The genesis of their Thelonious Moog project goes back a few years when Welsh, the self-proclaimed "king of corporate rock" who creates the soundtrack music for such lucrative accounts as Wal-Mart, began acquiring vintage synthesizers at his Nashville studio. "I had always wondered what Monk's stuff would sound like as a synth record," he says. "The nature of his music is so out. It's inherently wacky."

For Million, normally known as a cool-headed acoustic pianist and as a semifinalist in 1988's Thelonious Monk Institute competition, the Thelonious Moog project was a decided departure. "I thought that I would probably be a pariah after doing this," he says, "but it's amazing how many people have heard this and told us, 'Wow, this is really cool!' We've also had some pretty bitter commentaries from people saying, 'Monk's rolling over in his grave!' and things like that, but I don't care. I'm always looking for new ways to play stuff, and I thought this was a chance to get outside of the whole 'serious jazz' world. I love to play Monk's tunes in a serious way, don't get me wrong. But it was so much fun to just approach the stuff from the completely other side of the apple."

"When people try to do Monk's stuff, it's always a risk," Welsh says. "But we didn't do this record as a tribute to Monk as much as a tribute to the Moog records of the '60s and '70s. It wasn't meant to be jazz, although some of it swings. It wasn't meant to be serious, although it's got some pretty hip little solos there by Steve. When he and I first got together we decided to have no rules and just make a wacky Moog record. Our attitude was, if this record sounded like a Jean Jacques Perrey track, great. If it sounded like Todd Rundgren's instrumental stuff, great. If it sounded like Pee Wee Herman cartoon music, great-just as long as it had a Moog synthesizer overtone."

Welsh's arrangement of "Ugly Beauty" sounds like Todd Rundgren, circa 1972, while his take on "We See" has a distinctly lysergic quality. He puts sleigh bells and clip-clops on "I Mean You" and describes his version of "Jackie-ing" as a circus clown gone bad. Million's arranging contribution was a '60s surf-guitar rendition of "Off Minor."

"I think that jazz could use a shot in the arm like this," Welsh says. "Too many jazz musicians take themselves too seriously. And what's wrong with having some fun with this wonderful music?"

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