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by Seth Colter Walls

April 22, 2014

Jazz 101: Monk's Moods

by Seth Colter Walls  |  April 22, 2014

Jazz history is massive enough at this point to be a touch intimidating. With so many box sets and so many compilations to choose from, where to start? We've got you covered, era by era, with our Jazz 101 series, which you can follow here. Each daily playlist offers up five-star performances, and tips you off to albums with plenty more gold left to explore after the intro course is over. Enjoy.

After bop made the world safe for daring harmonies in improvisation, jazz was ready to hear a new key stylist announce the next advances in composition. With his first series of singles and EPs for Blue Note, starting in 1947, Thelonious Monk changed everything: All of a sudden, the strange chromatic notes from Bird's wild solos were being used to create indelible melodies for instant-classic songs that have never fallen out of use in jazz, or out of the popular imagination. (Chances are you've heard "Straight, No Chaser.") The pianist's relatively small compositional output and huge impact may remind you of the line about The Velvet Undergound's slight sales and lasting influence. Monk may not have written more than a few dozen songs, but they're virtually all classics.

Yet Monk's importance extends beyond his being a composer of incalculable note. As a pianist, he helped expand the boundaries of technique, even as he drew on classic stride-piano energy. Though he was derided at first for his odd rhythms and textures, his use of space and allowance of dissonance (see "Thelonious," for starters) have influenced the avant-garde as well as traditionalists. Plus, Monk's leadership meant that, by the '50s, he was attracting some great sidemen: Art Blakey swung the beat on "Blue Monk," while John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins both cut multiple records with the pianist. (Much of the Monk-Coltrane partnership was thought lost to history, until the At Carnegie Hall tapes surfaced in the 2000s; Rollins can be heard burning up the challenging tunes on Brilliant Corners, as well as on "Friday the 13th.") Check the appended playlist for a look at top performances of 15 of Monk's most memorable compositions, plus a solo take on "April in Paris."

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