On Viewing “Straight, No Chaser,” Uncut

Well, what can one say about Thelonius Monk, looking way back at 1965 from our plasticized 2011 – who was he anyway – that disoriented bearded being floating precisely around airports and clubs and concert halls, spinning like an astounded black bear in an urban forest?  It helps to sip a beer, just in case you’re not naturally high as a kite like he was, when you watch that documentary.  Wear earphones, let him drill down into your soul with his ragged, crackling chords, his disjunct rhythms, his absolutely playful melodic wanderings.  Dig those unearthly flashings of his eyes, those micro-seconds of illumination that sprang from his shamanic face as if he saw unimaginable things, futures unseen, maybe down into hell, the face of a sorcerer, of a holy man levitating inches above ground, never quite touching down because he breathes music mainly, breathes sound into his lungs, that’s how he lives.  A biological antenna drawing down alien, rigorously logical chords, yet all steeped in 1920s stride piano, earlier than that maybe.  He was like a great magnolia tree with roots down in the plantations, down in the funky soil of Mississippi, down under the hot sun and sweat of the ages, of the blues, the slinky soulful south, so achingly simple in his rural sentiments, but meanwhile his branches reaching up, up, up to the stars, to all the extreme harmonies, wrong notes that feel so right, smashed-out atonalities that make you jump up and twitch feel alive and twist your head around just like HE did. The black-and-white cinematography is unaffected and real, yet transcendental.  Its sense of intimacy is so vivid.  Charlie Rouse asks Monk, “What notes should I hit here?”  Monk stares off into the void for 20 seconds and finally mumbles, “Hit any of ‘em you want.”  (I mean, come on Charles, it’s Thelonius.)  Then here comes Rouse with his pristine, instantly identifiable made-for-Monk sound, clear as a bell as he knowledgably, serenely peruses the changes with popcorn-tasty, ear-tickling licks to die for. Got to dig this film, dream what it would be like to be that free, possessed and free, hearing the most remarkable crazy chords in your head, then crashing them out into the world like a silver waterfall, like a golden stream of diamonds – and it’s 1965 now, so they paying you some money for it.  Plus Nellie taking care of you, and the Baroness, you big magical baby, you father-wise godhead, absolutely fearless, slightly terrified, pumped up full of joy, twirling through this world like a polyphonic top.  You can’t take your eyes and ears off him, and now here comes a clean, baby Phil Woods and little Johnny Griffin and all those other heroes of the Age Of Serious Motherfucking Jazz and you wonder  –  is there any chance the dead get a free pass into jazzland?  Even if you didn’t get past the diatonic scales, isn’t there some way, someday to just HEAR all that shit and have it FLOW into your fingers like honey and out into ANOTHER world, like in that dream you had where you were in the twilight-zone club with the badass saxman who blew so cool it made you laugh and say wow, and then you woke up and realized that was you?

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