Thelonious Monk

Familiar with Thelonious Monk? If you’re not, then you won’t be for long. Listen up people

Music feature
Music feature

Familiar with Thelonious Monk? If not, you will be soon, because Rony and Elie Afif, two Dubai-based jazz-playing brothers, have taken it upon themselves to spread the word of this genius jazz pianist far and wide. Or at least to Al Barsha, where they will take up residence in The Fridge and launch an introduction to the man’s life. Which is great, but what makes this Monk character so special?

‘Monk’s musical vision was avant garde and ahead of his time,’ explains Rony. ‘It was rooted in the jazz tradition and in bebop, but he totally elevated the bebop form. He turned it into something else by throwing out the rules about harmonics, structuring and quantity of notes. He was more innovative and creative [than his peers]; a mad, crazy jazz player.’

Words, of course, can only do so much to convey the man’s music, which is why this concert will be a truly multimedia event. Before the concert and during the breaks, the brothers will play DVDs about the man and his music, and between songs they will shed light on the man’s compositions and life.

It’s a tricky business, though. Recreating the work of a mad genius is always a bit of a gamble, but how faithful can they possibly be? ‘We’re going to follow the style guideline and do it as authentically as we can,’ says Rony. ‘But at the end of the day you have to express yourself as well, so it will still have our touch. But the way he did it can always be found on CD, so it’s not like it’s lost forever. And we have the very talented Dr Dwight Dickerson on piano. He played with lots of big jazz musicians in the US over the last 60 years and he’s currently here teaching, so we’re very lucky to perform with him over here.’

The brothers are planning to continue the series with nights dedicated to other jazz giants such as John Coltrane, Miles Davies and Bud Powell, but Rony insists that he’s looking wider than just telling life stories. ‘This is about jazz itself. We need to promote it because it’s a beautiful, misunderstood genre. The scene is tough in the UAE when it comes to this kind of music – people still think Kenny G is jazz. But it’s worth fighting for, and it’s moving.’ So what is jazz? ‘Music cannot be easily defined, but jazz can be described as an improvised musical art form. And it’s definitely not Kenny G!’

A Tribute To Thelonious Monk is at The Fridge, May 11.

Thelonius files

A very potted history of the jazz hero.
Birth of a legend: Thelonious was born in 1917 and took up the piano at six. He had a little formal training but was essentially self-taught.

Playtime at the Playhouse: In the 1940s, a stint as resident pianist in Minton’s Playhouse, New York, brought him into contact with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davies.

The Monk sound: His style began to progress from bebop, becoming dissonant, complex and full of hard, percussive sounds and harsh stops.

The red Miles: Christmas Eve of 1954 saw Monk in a recording session with Miles Davies. Davies found Monk’s music difficult to improvise over, and growing tensions allegedly almost brought them to blows. Davies later denied this, but we like to imagine a massive fistfight broke out, with kung-fu and maybe ninjas. And a dinosaur!

Vinyl destination:
It wasn’t until 1956 that Monk got to record his own music, rather than covers, on Brilliant Corners. The title track was so hard to play that it was cut together from three takes.

Felonious Monk?:
Monk and his patron, Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, were stopped in the Baroness’s car by police in 1958. Narcotics were found in the boot but a judge threw the case out, as police had beaten up Monk.

Descent: In later life Monk began to exhibit strange behaviour, including refusing to talk to long-time colleague Al McKibbon because he was ‘too ugly’. His behaviour became increasingly erratic, although no cause was ever determined.

Legacy: Monk died of a stroke in 1982, leaving behind some of the world’s most respected jazz music. In 2006, he was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation.

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