Review: Monk/Monk in Europe

These two hour-long documentaries by Michael Blackwood, filmed in a verite style, follow the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk during several concert and recording stints in the U.S. and then Europe in 1967. There is no narration, and much of the footage has been cannibalized for other documentaries about jazz, so for the most part the films do little to give you any idea about Monk’s history and opinions. The original docs were broadcast on German TV and then never shown again until 1999. These current prints were taken from stock that was remastered in 2017, and what you get is mostly Monk playing, and that’s what you should want. Probably the most idiosyncratic pianist in a genre where idiosyncrasy is the norm rather than the exception, Monk is given plenty of room in these films to show his stuff. The production notes tell us he was at the height of his “fame” as a performer, and the awe with which he is met by fellow jazz musicians and fans alike is palpable, but the man himself is mostly incoherent and inadvertently comic, what with his extensive collection of headgear and a cigarette smoking style that kept his hands free to play. Monk comes across as an artist who is instinctual in that he has no need to explain much of what he is doing or even what he wants. Though one of the greatest jazz composers ever, he has people who transcribe what he does (including his solos) and translate his often incomprehensible ideas to the people he’s playing with. Monk, of course, could read and write music, but by this point he didn’t seem to have to—or he just couldn’t be bothered. During one studio session, some players ask about keys and tempos and he only responds viscerally. Of course, that’s how jazz musicians communicate, but Monk seems particularly dependent on the intuition of his interlocutors. 

During the concerts that were filmed, especially in the Europe doc, which chronicles a tour by the Newport Jazz Festival, Monk often seems disconnected, sitting slightly offstage while others solo, smoking and thinking. He will then casually get up, sit down at the piano and just get into it without fuss, but the exactitude of his intentions are obvious. There truly does not seem to be any conduit between thought and fingers. He’s more like an athlete than a musician, except that the beauty of what he produces is directly affecting. Though Monk would live another 15 years, he reportedly didn’t perform much after this period, and the overall mood of the two docs is of a man who not only has nothing to prove any more, but seems somewhat put out by any demand that he should. (It also suggests a man who wasn’t in the best of health.) In any case, Blackwood got the goods. These are films for hardcore jazz freaks. You come for the playing. Everything else is distraction. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Monk/Monk in Europe home page in Japanese

photo (c) 1968 All rights reserved by Michael Blackwood Productions

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