Well, of course Thelonious Monk was crazy. Of course he was. Until very recently, there was an aggravating tendency among historians and critics to write off his mental illness as run-of-the-mill eccentricity. “Ha! What a charmingly odd fellow! See how he dances around in a circle! See his strange hats! See how he doesn’t leave his apartment for years at a time!”
What ailed Monk seems completely obvious to us now, but it was mostly ignored while he was alive and playing. I’m not sure if it was because writing about such things was considered rude, or if the press of the time didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what most of us can now recognize as severe mental illness. Or maybe they thought that his mental illness was one of the main ingredients of what made him great and didn’t want to slaughter that particular golden goose. Granted, it was a goose that would on occasion shit all over the place, but it did lay a bunch of golden eggs.
Monk was great. There was nobody like him. He played incredibly far to the back of the beat, to the point where if he hit those notes on his piano one microsecond later the whole thing would have fallen apart, and his phrases would sometimes take two dozen measures to reveal themselves completely. The songs sometimes made no sense until all of a sudden they made all the sense in the world. Monk’s music is like a house of cards that can somehow support the weight of a car.
By all accounts, you were taking a gamble if you went to see Thelonious Monk perform, and you were certainly taking a gamble if you were part of Thelonious Monk’s band. Would he play or would he just sit there? If he did play, would he stick to the outline or would he cruise off into the spiral arm of the Monk Galaxy, where the phrases never end and time has no meaning? When it worked, it worked brilliantly. When it didn’t, it left people confused and angry, and all of his dancing around in a circle wouldn’t matter a damn. Towards the end of his playing career, the nights where it didn’t work far outnumbered the nights where it did. Due to both a lack of money and too many nights of Monk’s erratic behavior and confusing segues (John Coltrane likened working with Monk to “…falling down a dark elevator shaft”), it was difficult for him to keep a band together. There were a lot of hired guns and a lot of unknown players, which certainly didn’t help with Monk’s live performance batting average.
That’s the scenario you’re facing when you pick up Paris, 1969, a combination CD and DVD release on Blue Note that documents one of the last shows he ever did in Europe. Which Monk is this going to be? Is he going to be the genius or is he going to be the deer in the headlights? The mastermind or the mental patient? Or maybe a combination of all of these things? Is he going to inspire his band or is he going to alienate and frustrate them? A glance at the personnel doesn’t look promising. Paris Wright (huh?) is on drums here, and Nate "Lloyd" Hygelund (Nate “What” Whogelund?) is on bass, and I have no idea who those guys are. But there’s also Charlie Rouse, D.C. native and no-joke saxophonist on there as well, so that might help, but then again, this is Thelonious Monk. Who the hell knows what’s going to happen?
So here is what you get, mostly: A show where Monk sticks to the script, but that’s ok because it’s a hell of a script. Perhaps he stayed grounded for the benefit of his sidemen, who look both impossibly young and scared shitless on the DVD, but whatever Monk’s motives, it works. The band cruises through Monk’s classics (“Epistrophy,” “Straight, No Chaser”) with nary a hiccup. In most of these songs, there isn’t anything that really kills, but the material is strong enough to get away with a lack of embellishment or adventurous playing.
Things heat up when Philly Joe Jones is called out to take over the drum duties on “Nutty,” and he ups the energy level by a factor of about 100. On the DVD you can see exactly how the years have not been kind to Philly Joe, yet he murders the drum solo, never mind his grey hair and missing teeth.
Come to think of it, the DVD shows that the years have not been kind to Monk either. He looks much older than his 52 years here. This is one of the reasons I prefer to listen to the audio rather than watch the accompanying DVD. Monk pretty much went full recluse not long after this tour, and he has three solo performances here that give you a hint that that’s where he’s heading.
I mean, great songs. “Cerpuscule With Nellie,” “I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams,” and “Don’t Blame Me” are all worthy of the solo Monk treatment, but not here and not now. All of a sudden, those dissonant notes don’t seem like he’s doing them on purpose anymore. They feel like miscues and mistakes.
I’m as much of a Monk fan as anybody else, and I’m always pleased when somebody manages to dig out a new performance, but there are better Monk performances out there. Hell, there are better Monk performances in Paris out there - try 1967’s Evidence: Live in Paris for starters - but Paris 1969 is a serviceable show, and watching and/or listening lets you play the Thelonious Monk edition of the chicken/egg game that nobody has been able to figure out: Which came first, the genius or the crazy?