Back in the pre-internet days of the early 1990s, it took grit and fancy footwork to do your research. Slogging to the library and flipping through card catalogs, microfilm and old clippings; splaying open fat phone books; squinting at listings in tiny print; plunking in small change to make calls from a dirty phone booth; praying for the person at the other end to pick up…then you got your shot at seducing them into an interview; or if you were uncommonly lucky, a face-to-face meeting.
Pianist and composer Laurent DeWilde did all that and more in pursuit of understanding Thelonius Monk. The journey to write his 1998 book Monk was a rewarding one, yet he couldn’t have known then how it would serve as the prelude to his new CD where he channels the great Thelo.
Laurent’s new CD named for his ensemble “New Monk Trio” approaches the master’s discography with love, care and delicacy; but also assertiveness and a sense of play. In “Rhythm a Ning” the band absolutely cooks on a prolonged intro that hammers the central note, then breaks out into a musical dance around the theme. Piano, bass and drums take you on a joyride, punctuated with stick taps then bluesy standalone chords. The swift spirit spins you ’round, inserting layers of off-kilter dissonance and leading minor sevenths that do not resolve so much as morph.
A Paris-based composer and performer, Laurent also proves to have a soft, lyrical side. His take on “Monk’s Mood” is untraditional. Ballad-like, with a contrasting rhythm provided by bass and percussion, the song showcases Laurent’s depth of composition. Listen out for the song’s plaintive theme, which he riffs upon, then inventively departs from.
A welcome drink of cool water from which to sip and think of Monk’s many moods, this CD is a stunning new way to hear the master who would have been a century old last year.
What was the most memorable component of your own music education?
New York City, no doubt. I was 23 when I first came to the Big Apple, and it changed my life. I loved jazz before, but I had no idea of how…immense that music was. That’s where I learned everything, the right way.
What inspired you to re-examine Monk’s discography?
First of all, the fact that for twenty years (since my book came out), I constantly ran into people who were asking me when I would record a Monk album – believe me, twenty years is a long time to hear the same question over and over again. Actually I liked the idea, but it was hard for me to overcome a sense of helplessness: how do you play the music of a man you’ve been spending a good chunk of your life explaining his unique genius?
Then came the centennial of his birth which kind of pushed me into action. I knew a few other musicians who planned to record a Monk album, and to be honest, I would have hated to miss the party! So I jumped in.
How do you reimagine “’Round Midnight” and make it your own?
I definitely sit at the piano. The problem you have when you’re arranging somebody else’s music is that you have to distance yourself from the original as fast as you can, otherwise you will be constantly dragged back to where you started. In this case, I noticed that the song, which had originally the reputation of being really hard to play because of all those weird chords that kept on jumping in unexpected directions, had a melody that could pretty well play out on one single chord. To talk shop, it’s kind of modal. So I took the melody’s notes on the first two bars, assembled them in a different order to come up with a bass line… et voilà!
You called the process “intimidating” yet you walked right into it and faced the challenge. Why?
Well, as I said, spending your life describing Monk’s genius sheds a sobering light on your own musicality. It’s like stage fright: you’re playing a familiar repertoire in a hospitable venue with a friendly band and everything points to a happy performance, but just before you go on stage, you notice in the audience the presence of this musician, critic, friend, foe, whatever, and suddenly everything changes and you find yourself playing for that person, and not for the music as you should be… Well, for me it was as if Thelonious were walking in on my gig.
When did you publish your book about Monk and what was the most surprising thing you learned in your research?
It came out in 1998, and I must have spent five or six years on the research and the writing. At the time, there was no internet, I did all my research by foot. Or I would spend weeks at the New York Public Library, looking for reviews on microfilm… But the fun part was when I got to interview musicians and personalities who knew him.
What struck me was that everyone had a big smile on their face when they were talking about him. Monk was very fondly remembered, and they all had a funny memory popping up when mentioning his name. And that’s a very good vibe.
What do you wish to preserve of the character of these songs?
That’s exactly where it all lays. I guess I had an angle for each one I recorded. On “Coming on the Hudson,” it was its upward harmonic movement in the first two bars that fascinated me; it goes up, up, and then suddenly down. Typical Monk move, funnily deceptive. I liked the effect so much that I decided to amplify it, going up, up, up, up… and then down, postponing the deception as long as I can. And I’m so enamored with the melody of the bridge that I looped it and used it for a drum solo background; I just couldn’t get tired of it.
On “Monk’s Mood,” I overlapped the melody with a short cycle of repeated chords, so the song sounds really intriguing. It’s all an original feature of the song that I wanted to expand on.
So every time I build up on some arbitrary vision of its character.
Which are your favorites?
Well, as disappointing as it may sound, they’re all my favorites. Each one contains the elements of some internal evolution; each one is a springboard for more music and fun. So maybe one night, I’ll find some opening I didn’t think of before. I’d be very excited, and that would be my preferred song of the moment.
Then, the same thing would happen on another tune the next day, and that one would climb up to the top of my list, and so on.
My real concern, when I was working on the arrangements, was to devise them in a way that there would always be room for new ideas and new excitement.
What do you mean about giving the new arrangement of “Pannonica” more space?
The tempo is… floating. Some chords last indefinitely before going back to the real changes. I play the melody alone as a conclusion. All this concurs for me to a sense of zero gravity that reflects the quality of Thelonious and Pannonica’s relationship: something above the normal rules, not constricted in form nor weight.
Talk about Donald Kontomanou (percussion) and Jerome Regard (bass) – how they enhanced the process.
I came up to the session with most of the arrangements pretty well figured out. But what sounds good in my head doesn’t always work in real life. Their first input was to interpret my intentions and to try to make it work. Sometimes, they would propose a radical alternative to what I was failing to reach, and that made sense. They really got involved in that. But then, within the arrangements, I always took care of leaving a lot of places where they had to come up with something on the spot. The solo part on Round Midnight is Eb minor, open. Period. So they have to pick a direction, and I’m counting on it, because they’re such marvelous improvisers, they always have fresh and exciting ideas that make the music happen.
Are they completely enamored of Monk as well?
I would bet that Donald must know by heart a good fifty Monk compositions, and that he can sing and play most of them on the piano. Let’s say they’re Monk lovers, but not with the unsettling intensity of my own experience.
When did you form your trio and what is the audience reaction when you perform?
We started playing five years ago, first on my old repertoire from Over the Clouds, then within a larger band I formed to accompany comedian Jacques Gamblin, with whom we wrote a show that we took on the road quite extensively. We’ve been together a lot for the past few years.
In both cases, the reaction from the audience was extremely positive. As a trio (as well as with Gamblin), we feel that the public is connecting with us through the grooves and the interplay that we develop . We’re having fun on stage, and it shows.
Prefer smaller clubs or large venues?
I’ve been running a lot lately into colleagues who have achieved a solid reputation in the business and play only big venues, complaining that they’re missing the small club’s magical atmosphere. Personally, I couldn’t live without it.
As much as I could, I’ve always tried to find a balance between the necessity of addressing a larger public and the pleasure of playing in clubs. Because the proximity of the people, the quality of listening, the immediate feedback between the audience and the musicians, all that makes you feel you’re in a bubble that can go anywhere on a whim.
Creatively speaking, it’s the perfect setting for trying new things and stretching your limits. It doesn’t exclude another kind of hype, when you manage to lift 1500 listeners into a long musical ascension, which is quite a trip, too, but different. I guess that if I were a jumbo jet pilot, I wouldn’t mind flying a single engine small plane from time to time, just to remember what it really feels like to fly.
What was different about your earlier CD “Over the Clouds”?
The two sessions were very different. On Over the Clouds, it was a hectic, sometimes counterproductive and agitated session. I couldn’t get what I wanted, and went back at it until I couldn’t go any further. On top of that, I had a very severe case of frozen shoulder that made any move of my right arm extremely painful.
Funny enough, the resulting music sounded rather unhurried and cool, but it took a lot of sweat to get there. The Monk session was exactly the opposite – well-planned, great recording conditions, no tensions. It was effortless.
Is your book Les Fous du Son about the history of the piano?
The piano has a part in my book, but it’s basically the story of inventors’ lives. The ones I chose to tell about invented new instruments and new ways to master sound with electricity.
It starts with Edison (the light bulb, the phonograph, the microphone), and continues all along the 20th century with Theremin, Hammond, Rhodes, Moog, Buchla. Some of them used keyboards, some didn’t, so I had to provide a little historical perspective on the instrument and its closeness to scientific experiments.
When you think of it, the keyboard is the only original instrument that Western culture invented and that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
What did you do last year as tribute to the 100th anniversary of Monk’s birth?
On October 10th, his birthday, we played with the trio in a very nice theater in Paris, and the concert was broadcast live on Arte Concerts channel. The session was filmed by Paul Ouazan, a much-admired director with whom I had previously shot two documentaries. And it was the official release date of the album. I’m still amazed that we managed to meet the deadline (it took about eight months to build up the project) with such accuracy.
Which of his little-known songs do you like, that most people have not heard?
“Who Knows,” because it makes me laugh every time I listen to it. “Introspection,” so intricate; “Gallop’s Gallop,” the jumpiest melody ever; “Work,” so happy and complicated at the same time.
Is there a strong interest in Monk today?
2017 was the centennial of Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald and Thelonious Monk. The three of them were major contributors, each in his or her way, to jazz history. But I can tell you that in France, Thelonious was the only one who was celebrated with some kind of ceremony. I think the reason lays in the fact that his compositions continue to fill young musicians’ playbooks. They’re intriguing, compelling songs that challenge your usual routines and sound great… if you play them right. On top of being an extraordinary performer who invented his own inimitable technique to achieve a unique sound, he is a composer whose brilliant legacy continues to defy generations, one after the other.
Where will you perform/tour this year?
Mostly in Europe, but everywhere we’ll be invited.
To the student, what would you say they need to do to best understand Monk?
For a pianist, I recommend watching as many Monk videos as possible. His technique is really special and sometimes totally counter-intuitive. Many things he does are totally forbidden from a pianisitc point of view. Basically, he drums the piano.
It’s very physical, very muscular. And that’s how he gets his sound. If you don’t see it, believe me, there is no way to figure it out by yourself. And as far as understanding his music, well, my advice would be the more you play it, the more you get it. That’s the way he practiced himself, by playing the same tune over and over and over, until it had a life of its own. The same method often provides the same results.
What did you learn about yourself in the making of this CD?
That when it comes to Monk, I’m sometimes my worst enemy. And in spite of that, I had a lot of fun recording the album and even more playing it live. I’m glad that’s behind me now.
I must confess I’m running dry 🙂
For more information, visit www.laurentdewilde.com.