“Exhaustive” is certainly a word that comes to mind for Work. Miles Okazaki was armed only with his solo guitar when he recorded all 70 known compositions by Thelonious Monk (70 being the number included in Steve Cardenas and Don Sickler’s Thelonious Monk Fakebook). It’s an undertaking of such ambition, even Monk never got there: Work includes “52nd Street Theme,” “Two Timer,” and “A Merrier Christmas,” compositions that the legendary pianist didn’t record himself.
To hear individual tracks, though, is not to be hit in the face with any sort of grandiose intent. Each is a stark, unadorned guitar solo, lightly amplified and fingerpicked, without effects pedals or post-production processing or thickets of overdubs. Textures vary not at all across the 70 tunes, tone very little—except where Okazaki can alter it with his fingers alone. The variation comes from the compositions, and whatever Okazaki feels the need to bring to them. He makes some surprising, sometimes amusing but usually fulfilling stylistic choices: “A Merrier Christmas” and “Monk’s Mood” both read like Appalachian folk ballads, “Skippy” like 1950s rockabilly. It’s an exposition of the art of the guitarist, if nothing else.
That said, Work is a great deal else. It could only succeed (as it does) on a chordal instrument; notwithstanding the pleasure and individualism of Monk’s melodies, it’s the minor seconds, flatted fifths, and compound intervals that give them life. (“Let’s Call This,” to pick one example, is a tune built on such harmonies, and Okazaki vivifies it with two-part voice leading that progresses through most of the performance.) Knowing this, Okazaki exploits the unique properties of his axe. A listener who first encounters “Evidence,” “Misterioso,” or “Let’s Cool One” via Okazaki’s versions might reasonably conclude that they were written for the six-string.
But the guitarist also acknowledges Monk’s penchant for thematic improvisation. “I try to make an improvisation from the information in the composition itself,” Okazaki writes in Work’s liner notes, and that’s immediately apparent on “Brilliant Corners,” “Little Rootie Tootie,” and “Green Chimneys,” which distills the theme to its essence in a way that can only be called (to coin a term) imaginative monotony. The nearly nine-minute “Well You Needn’t” shines for both its momentum and its constant shapeshifts.
At its best, Work combines the Monkian touches with the guitaristic ones. “Bolivar Blues” dredges the bluesiest of blues feeling, but also throws in a flamenco flourish. The improv line on “Nutty” finds its upper and bass registers good-naturedly colliding into pretty rolled chords. On “Jackie-ing,” Okazaki plays sporadic bass notes and lets them decay, acting as a drone that makes the tune unexpectedly beautiful.
The sheer breadth of Work makes some duds inevitable. “Shuffle Boil” and “Ruby My Dear” are bland (insofar as Monk can ever be bland); “Blues Five Spot” is in its component parts a neat chain of blues licks, but in sum rather aimless; “Blue Sphere” is frankly incomprehensible. Just take them in stride and soldier on. The dazzling invention that constitutes the remainder of Work is more than enough compensation.