Alexander von Schlippenbach/Axel Dörner/Rudi Mahall/Jan Roder/Uli Jennessen

Monk’s Casino: The Complete Works of Thelonious Monk

By Ken Waxman
August 1, 2005

Hard as it may be to believe now, but in 1955 Thelonious Monk and his music were thought so weird and inaccessible that Orrin Keepnews of Riverside records was able to exclusively sign the pianist by paying Prestige records the $108.27 Monk had overdrawn against future royalties.

A series of well-conceived discs on Riverside and later Columbia raised the profile of the eccentric, hat-wearing former High Priest of Bebop to such an extent that he ended up on the cover of Time magazine in 1964. As he become less communicative and more ill, Monk nearly disappeared from public view in the 10 years before his death in 1982, only to have his iconic sounds gain a new following from 1990s onwards. Now there’s a Thelonious Monk piano competition – a concept that the eccentric keyboard attacker would probably have found laughable – and every neo-con or fusioneer tries to record at least one Monk piece – or a whole CD of them – to show his or her hipness.

Today many of his tunes are so familiar that they almost sound commonplace. Especially preferred is the unthreatening “Round Midnight”, an atypically gentle ballad and a strictly horizontal number like Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” and Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”, which like the other two, could use a 10-year recording hiatus. Yet by constantly performing that one as well galloping through of some of his more rhythmic lines such as “Evidence”, most players miss the essence of Monk.

One who doesn’t is German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, who aptly demonstrates this on Monk’s Casino, a three-CD set, which exemplarily recasts many of Monk’s compositions, while performing them all – including a couple that were never recorded. Unlike the fusoids and neo-cons who amplify the pianist’s unique song structure as a way to appear far out, these 57 tracks probably contain some of von Schlippenbach’s most mainstream playing. Paradoxically this is truer to Monk’s vision than those purported improved versions of his tunes, since the New York pianist didn’t consider his work weird, just unique. Von Schlippenbach, who often includes some Monk in his solo programs and free improv works, can identify with that.

Classically educated and a member of mainstream bands in the 1960s, he’s part of Europe’s first generation of Free Jazzers. Best known for his 30-year association with British saxophonist Evan Parker and German drummer Paul Lovens in a trio, his large scale writing and arranging skills were put to use in versions of the Globe Unity Orchestra. Besides freeform numbers he also arranged work by Monk and Jelly Roll Morton for the band.

Set up as with a “pick any number” wheel of fortune motif, this set resulted from two dedicated live gigs in a Berlin club by the pianist’s combo specifically designed to record the oeuvre. While his playing here may be slightly conventional – in a Monkian sense – that doesn’t mean that some of the 57 tracks don’t get POMO stimulus.

Consider the group’s make-up. The other four other players were initially the Die Enttäuschung band, whose first CD was a Monk tribute. Individually, though, they don’t function as a copycat ghost band. As simpatico here as drummer Frankie Dunlop and bassist John Ore – who coincidentally also played with Sun Ra – were with Monk, bassist Jan Roder and drummer Uli Jennessen are no neo-boppers. Jennessen is in a Free Jazz trio with Canadian bassist Joe Williamson and eccentric American guitarist Eugene Chadbourne; while Roder has worked with everyone from Berlin pianist Uli Gumpert to Romanian pianist Mircea Tiberian.

As for the front line, Monk’s trumpeters of choice were solid mainstreamers like Ray Copeland, Clark Terry and Thad Jones. While sufficiently muted or brassy when needed here, Axel Dörner sometimes demonstrates the extended technique which elsewhere has allowed him to originate a minimalist trumpet vocabulary. Furthermore, except when one reedist tripled on it during his 1963 Philharmonic Hall concert, Monk never recorded with a bass clarinet. His combo preference was for the tenor saxophone, which for many years was handled by Charlie Rouse. Thus without a role model, bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall brings his own personality to these pieces. In fact, his playing is as innovative on his chosen axe as other Monk saxophonists such as John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins were on theirs. Nürnberg-native Mahall has done everything from recording atonal solo numbers to playing with Cool alto saxophonist Lee Konitz. His fondness for quick glissandi sometimes suggests Eric Dolphy, another Monk admirer.

Ranging from near-palindromes – musical verses that sound the same backwards and forwards — to out-and-out contrafacts or tunes consisting of a new head superimposed upon an already existing set of changes – to down-to-earth rhythmic numbers, the band actually plays 71 [!] Monk compositions. Taking anywhere from 41 seconds to 10 minutes to perform, each man has plenty of scope to express a specific musical personality.

Not only does the unique instrumentation, arrangement and the band members extended techniques provide fresh consideration of the familiar work, but Monk’s Casino also includes versions of some pieces recorded once if at all. Then there are interpolations and medleys that highlight the interrelation of numbers in Monk’s book.

Take the sole appearance of “Round Midnight” for instance. Latterly coupled with “Four In One”, it’s double-timed in the middle before a quick sprint back to the initial theme. It features von Schlippenbach at his most characteristically Monk-like, especially when he sprays ragged glissando over the keys, circling the melody, as Mahall washes wave after wave of Dolphyesque runs over it.

Similarly “Misterioso/Sixteen/Skippy” becomes a triptych that begins with the first familiar theme tossed in quarter tones from trumpet to clarinet until the pianist provides high frequency, near boogie-woogie voicing, with sudden unexpected, half- second pauses in the centre. Restrained plucking from Roder and resonating ratamacues from Jennessen back Dörner and Mahall trading fours which makes short work of “Sixteen” – recorded once by Monk in 1952. Changing directions, “Skippy” is taken at a more elevated tempo than usual and features the woodwind player sluicing glottal action in false registers, while the brassman negotiates choked-valve double counterpoint and the drummer adds timed rat-tat-tats. Comping in octaves, von Schlippenbach finally pushes the others to recapitulate the head, with the tune’s finale an expected drum break, bass pluck and unison horn vamp.

Then there’s the run through of “Green Chimneys/Little Rootie Tootie”. A quasi-montuno beat driven by cross sticking from Jennessen invests the first tune with agitato excitement that continues as the second theme appears, With the tempo halved for a muted trumpet and slap bass exchange, the pianist moves from stride to some Monkish, elbow-launched key pounding at the end.

Still, if interpretation was Monk’s Casino’s only virtue than it would be little different from the multitude of tribute discs that have appeared since 1982. Chick Corea did an early one which was well-played, but rounded all the corners of Monk’s angularity. In contrast, each of the players here is given scope to re-imagine the compositions.

Dörner’s “Intro Bemsha Swing”, for instance is three minutes and 29 seconds of

bubbling blows and scrapes, internal growls and freed air passages. Irregular textures pass from the mouthpiece to the bell, or snake through the valves. Peeping trumpet licks then join in double counterpoint with bass clarinet slurs to introduce the theme on the next track. Soon afterwards, however, “52nd Street Theme” is interpolated as well, sounding more like an Ur-bebop line than it does in other contexts.

“Gallop’s Gallop” on the other hand is taken at Ramones-style tempo, with Jannessen’s snares beating out a military tattoo and irregular pitch vibrations ranging from cries to growls, nearly piercing the horns. Occasionally, if the theme peeks through punk rock velocity, Mahall smears tunnel-echoing spetrofluctuation, Dörner shrills rubato bugle-calls and von Schlippenbach key clips to compete.

“Monk’s Dream” erupts into Dadaism with a pseudo-prepared piano intro giving way to wah-wahs from the trumpeter, discordant wounded bird squeals from the bass clarinet and what sounds like Jennessen tossing unselected cymbals across the stage floor. The entire effect conjures up a visual picture of midget clowns honking noisemakers to disrupt a serious circus performance.

“Rhythm-a-ning” almost six minutes of agitato, shows the connection between Monk’s bebop roots, the New Thing and earlier jazz. Dörner may be muted and Miles-like, but post-modernist Mahall triples tongues and slides from exaggerated grace notes to basement slurs. Providing linkage for the others, Roder walks as the pianist’s comping is closer to boogie woogie than bop.

Other pieces include embellished Dixieland counterpoint or intermittent rondo references. Some have the horns limning the theme at one speed and the rhythm section playing at another. At only 58 seconds, for example, “Ruby My Dear” appears to have three separate harmonic and rhythmic lines going at once.

When he’s not approximating Kenny Clarke or Paul Lovens in his playing, Jennessen’s brief snare, cymbal and bass drum ruffs and rebounds suggest Jo Jones, while the pianist’s free-flowing inventiveness take in keyboard styles as far back as James P. Johnson and Earl Hines and go forward to Cecil Taylor dynamics.

Finally, the renditions of certain too-familiar pieces are so overblown that they almost appear to be parodies – that is if dissonant multiphonics didn’t finally shatter the mood. Played almost straight, in this context a two-minute version of “Off Minor” sounds as traditional as My Old Kentucky Home” or “Satin Doll” until von Schlippenbach spools arpeggios every which way, and the horns harmonize the theme in broken cadences.

Still, for all his enlightened soloing other places, Mahall is a little too Dolphyesque on several pieces, a tendency one would hope he’ll mute in the future. Regrettably too, unless one lives and breathes Monk, listening to all three discs in one sitting could induce stupor from his singular vision.

Or perhaps it won’t. For doubtless some fans will leap up and do bear-like shuffling dances around their listening area, honoring this quintet’s renditions the same way Monk used to celebrate his own music.