Bobby Broom’s 2009 Thelonious Monk tribute album, Bobby Broom Plays for Monk (Origin), almost didn’t happen. Prior to going into the studio, the Chicago-based guitarist convened his trio to test out the concept. After hitting on a New Orleans-flavored arrangement of “Bemsha Swing” that felt right, bassist Dennis Carroll suggested that the tune sounded like something John Scofield might do, so Broom ran to the computer.
“I searched ‘Sco’ and ‘Bemsha Swing’ and didn’t find anything,” Broom recalls. “But I found a whole Peter Bernstein Monk record, and when I checked iTunes I realized it had been released that day!” Broom almost canceled his tribute on the spot, but a quick listen to a few of the tracks from Bernstein’s Monk (Xanadu) assured him that his arrangements were different enough to proceed.
Broom and Bernstein certainly aren’t the only guitarists to show their affection for Monk on record in recent years. The latest addition to the Thelonious tribute list is fingerstyle player Duck Baker, whose new solo album, Duck Baker Plays Monk (Triple Point), is a stark, stunning refraction of Monk’s originals. “I feel like solo guitar is as small as you can make something and still have music be complete,” Baker says. “I come from a folk background and played ragtime long before I played modern jazz, so I’ve always had the idea of trying to imitate what piano players do. Monk is even more spare than ragtime; his chords aren’t as full as Bud Powell’s or Teddy Wilson’s—or almost any other piano player’s. Any time you change something from one instrument to another, especially from piano to guitar, you use slightly different notes to get the same effect they did. With Monk you can use the bare bones and be true to his spirit without just copying him.”
One key to interpreting Monk on the guitar, Baker continues, is to find a way to replicate, or at least intimate, the composer’s eccentric voicings. “Monk won’t bother with octaves sometimes. He’ll put some very dissonant things together and leave out the notes that seem more obvious. It makes it sound much fuller, because the fact that it’s dissonant fills it up. The trick there is finding the right notes; [his music] lies well on the guitar, but it doesn’t lie in obvious places. The fingerings can be a little awkward, but musically it can be very convincing.”
Broom took a different approach to arranging Monk, content to play the tunes wholly in his own blues- and swing-rooted style. “I got flak from some people saying my record wasn’t ‘Monk-ish’ enough,” he says. “I didn’t even know that was a word, but I understood what they were trying to say. There are characteristics of Monk’s playing that are singular to him: the way he makes clusters and uses these seemingly dissonant intervals within his chords. I didn’t feel the need or the desire to try to incorporate those idiosyncrasies; I chose rather to let his compositions speak for themselves and then approach the music as I would anything else in my interpretive way.”
Why do guitarists in particular gravitate toward Monk? Baker says that he feels at home with Monk’s music, due in part to another strain in his own playing: the blues. “Monk’s blues tunes work fine on the guitar—maybe better than most pianists can make them work,” he says. “Monk is a Piedmont blues player. When he plays blues, he’s more traditional—as far as what you call the horizontal harmony—than even Leroy Carr. And this is one of the most—I would say the most—advanced harmonic thinkers of his generation in terms of jazz. I’m a fingerpicker; this is where I live: blues and ragtime and gospel. For somebody who has some of that in their background as well as jazz, that’s a natural place to hook into Monk.”
The two guitarists’ tributes are stylistically quite divergent, which has much to do with the great capacity for personal expression that is the core of Monk’s music. “Everything starts with the records in terms of learning this music,” Broom says. “Monk’s music may be more difficult than something else, but the best advice I can give is to learn the song, and that’s the same no matter whose song it is. My advice to myself was, ‘Sound like you; make the music recognizable for what it is; don’t try to recreate the wheel, but don’t just play the song like a lounge band.’ First, you have to realize what you sound like. That’s not an easy thing, and it takes some time.”
“The right way to approach it is to think that each one of these tunes is full of challenges,” Baker concludes. “You want to be true to the spirit of Monk and what the music is, but at the same time we don’t have to do it exactly the way that he did it. There’s so much more implied there, and when we go into something like this, the idea should be to find more and more of those things [that are implied] and to keep mining them.
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