The Right Mistakes: Confronting the “Old Question” of Thelonious Monk's Chops


The Right Mistakes: Confronting the “Old Question” of Thelonious Monk's Chops
Jazz Perspectives
1749-4060, 1749-4079
Though once considered an incompetent pianist, Thelonious Monk has long been celebrated for his playing as much as for his compositions. Yet his pianism continues to occasion critical unease; a defensiveness is detectable in discussions of Monk's technique even today. This may be because considerations of Monk's playing tend to avoid or finesse peculiarities that raised questions about his ability in the first place. These include the jarring dissonances which strike some listeners as mistakes.

Examination of Monk's dissonance usage suggests two analytic categories. “Timbral dissonance” is an aspect of tone, idiomatic to the Black music tradition. The more idiosyncratic “syntactic dissonance” serves, rather, to challenge or subvert musical conventions.

An analysis of Monk's 1968 solo recording of “Round Midnight” focuses on syntactic “wrong-note” dissonances. Neither errors nor merely facets of Monk's tone, their significance is bound up with their “wrongness”: they make sense because they sound wrong in a meaningful way, as significations on musical norms. Considered in pertinent contexts—the chord changes, the jazz piano tradition, and the improvisational process—Monk's “mistakes” evince a trickster logic, wry humor, and a precision that speaks directly to lingering uncertainty regarding his technical accuracy.
Jazz Perspectives
The Right Mistakes
2019-05-06T19:53:26Z (Crossref)