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Thelonious Monk: Ode to a Sphere

Vijay Iyer on the great pianist and composer

Vijay Iyer

There is immense power and careful logic in the music of Thelonious Sphere Monk. But you might have such a good time listening to it that you might not even notice. That, of course, would be your problem, not his.

Monk was an architect of feeling. His tunes were slick, inhabitable little rooms that warmed the heart with their odd angles and bright colors. Somehow he knew exactly how to make you feel good—and I mean exactly, as if it were medicine, or gastronomy, or massage, or feng shui.

The idea that music that feels good might require craft, discipline and hard work runs contrary to prevailing wisdom about Monk. Many people still harbor a false and uncharitable image of an untutored, unpolished, intuitive savant. But close attention to Monk’s music reveals the result of decades of purposeful experimentation, discovery and refinement.

The groove was paramount: “When you’re swinging, swing some more,” he’d say. For this very reason, his critically maligned Columbia years are actually my favorite; the groove is so deep, anything seems possible. Monk’s sense of time alone was legendary. He could play with or against the beat but his inner pulse was always strong and centered. The complex dialogue between his two hands on the stride-piano selections demonstrates this, as do his microexpressive treatments of standards. And the rhythmic permutations of “Straight, No Chaser” or “Evidence” or “Criss Cross” or even “Jackie-Ing” reveal a mischievous rigor, grounded in a lifetime of polyrhythmic experience.

And you can’t ignore his shocking sonorities, the economy and clarity of his melodies, the specificity and care lavished on every last detail. His was an elemental approach to composition: He worked not with pre-given notions of melody, rhythm and harmony, but with the fundamentals of sound, time and perception.


Everyone knows that Monk composed brilliant, beloved songs, but less noticed is how well Monk could orchestrate and arrange. “Deceptively simple,” goes one accurate description of how shrewdly he would guide your ear. Never resorting to obvious ensemble strategies, he found a surprising variety of timbres and combinations within the small-group format to keep the listener engaged.

Even in a quartet or quintet, he would trick you into hearing a continuous melody from a hocketed composite of multiple instruments. Sometimes he’d flip things around and the horns would comp for the piano. Or he would use a second horn for fleeting, subtle shading of a melody—”so smooth you probably missed it,” to borrow an old Q-Tip lyric.

At the piano, Monk had his favorite sounds—to call them mere “voicings” or “chords” misses the point. Every one is a discovery, a hard-won jewel, found deep in some terrain where no one else was looking. With every sound he took a stand, defying you with its funk, throwing down the gauntlet with each astonishing, pungent invention. You wonder why more people don’t make discoveries like this, until you realize how difficult it is.


These chord-jewels of his were palpable, physical objects. By this I mean that they took advantage of the physics of sound; they were resonant. Sympathetic vibrations could fill in the space that a lesser pianist would stuff with more notes. Spreading out voices in a chord across multiple octaves allows each pitch to resound.

Cecil Taylor once spoke in reverential tones of Monk’s “different combinations of notes in different registers,” as if that quality were somehow the key to it all. And indeed, this is how sound works: Overtones of a low fundamental start out sparsely in the lower octaves, and become gradually denser as you climb up to the high register. Monk displayed intimate knowledge of this physical law, and he put it to the test.

The minor seventh and the flatted fifth, two of Monk’s most often-used extensions, are the piano’s versions of the seventh and eleventh partials of the harmonic series, respectively. (Remember, the ubiquity of the flatted fifth in jazz could arguably be attributed to Monk himself.) He would also combine the minor and major seventh of a chord (a.k.a. the seventh and fifteenth partials), the natural and flat ninths (i.e., the ninth and seventeenth partials) and other “forbidden” combinations that actually sound good and make physical sense.


A close study of Monk’s playing reveals this spectral quality of his chords, this clear perception of higher harmonics in the sound of the piano. In order to activate these higher partials, he had to play with a little more force than the average pianist, to get the instrument ringing and shaking. In this sense harmony and tone were integrated concepts. This is why I call them “sounds” rather than “chords”; they are not theoretical constructs but vibratory experiences—actual, specific sensations—and they feel good.

When Monk played someone else’s music, he would recast it in this sonic language. His versions were the result of painstaking labor. Each harmony was seemingly rebuilt from scratch, chosen with care and worked over, and every ornament, filigree, run and fill carefully considered. And yet the playing was also full of risk. You can’t help but notice the liveness of it, the sense of possibility and discovery, the chances taken and the rewards reaped.

That risk lies somewhere in the dialogue between rhythm and improvisation-in the sustained buoyancy of pulse that is his signature, and in the real-time melodic invention that forms a counterpoint to it. Monk’s heroic balancing act of groove and self-expression—the sheer human drama of it—is, for me, his most profound legacy.


But in truth there is an endless amount to learn from Monk. I always keep his music close by, and I think about him every day. I hope you will, too.

Originally Published