Interview: Rez Abbasi on Monk

No classic jazz composer’s art so lives and breathes night after night on bandstands across the country and around the world like that of Thelonious Monk. Melodically, harmonically, rhythmically and texturally, Monk’s music is always itself – fresh and accessible, surprising and renewable – even as it is interpreted by generation after generation, yielding new possibilities no matter the stylistic variables. “Round Midnight,” “Straight, No Chaser,” “Epistrophy,” “In Walked Bud,” “Crepuscule for Nellie,” “Well, You Needn’t,” the list of timeless Monk tunes goes on and on. Like that of J.S. Bach, the music of Monk sounds sublime on a wide range of instruments, perhaps especially – after the piano – on the guitar. With this in mind, “Monk on Guitars!” – a one-of-a-kind concert on June 30 to help celebrate the fifth anniversary of Sound It Out and raise funds for Greenwich House Music School – will pay tribute to Monk in his centennial birthday year by presenting some of New York City’s most exciting guitarists playing a night of his tunes in various configurations.

Guitarist Rez Abbasi helped me organize the round-robin ensemble, as well as put together the evening’s program. The lineup will also include six-string aces Nels Cline, Julian Lage, David Gilmore, Miles Okazaki, Liberty Ellman, Steve Cardenas, Mike Baggetta and Anders Nilsson, along with bassists Stephan Crump and Jerome Harris and drummers Colin Stranahan, Richie Barshay and Mark Whitfield Jr. The longstanding Cline-Lage duo will featured, as well as guitarists interacting for the first time. Rez, along with creating his vibrant original compositions, is an acute, imaginative interpreter of music from Monk to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, from Keith Jarrett’s “The Cure” to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Lament.” He talked with me about Monk and the guitar, as a prelude to the show.

Bradley Bambarger: What are some of the challenges and opportunities of playing Monk’s music on the guitar?

Rez Abbasi: There are plenty of technical challenges to playing Monk on the guitar, but every player has to deal in their own way – and that’s what makes his music so inviting. A Monk tune demands that you bring your own character to the plate. If you’re simply going to imitate his style, I think you’re missing the point. It’s not about playing quirky ideas on his tunes, but at the same time, I think his tunes shine better in the hands of people who have some quirkiness to their playing, as opposed to trying to play perfectly. So, in a way, playing his tunes is like putting a mirror up to see how your inner musical character reveals itself – it’s like a teachable moment.

BB: Who are some of your favorite Monk interpreters on guitar?

RA: Far and above, my favorite album of Monk interpretations is Paul Motian’s Monk in Motian, that late-’80s record featuring guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano, with guests Geri Allen on piano and Dewey Redman on tenor sax. I can’t count how many times I listened to that record. To me, Bill Frisell was just meant to play Monk’s music. The fact that he’s not such a “line player” and that he approaches his music with a textural frame of mind just reminds me of Monk’s approach.

BB: Why do you think Monk’s music has such broad, evergreen appeal?

RA: Monk seems to encapsulate this philosophy of opposites, an aesthetic where things are simultaneously simple and complex, tense and relaxed, ugly and beautiful, etc. His melodies are gorgeous, grounded and couched in highly chromatic harmonic progressions. And they are so fun to hear and play. Above and beyond that, Monk has the rare ability to convey the scope of humanity through his art and we all connect to that.

BB: What were some of your primary aims when designing the program for the “Monk on Guitars!” concert?

RA: First of all, I wanted to make sure everyone was comfortable, as Monk tunes aren’t easy to play and to expect people to know his book backwards and forwards would be expecting too much. So I started by asking for any favorites – Nels Cline put dibs on “Jackie-ing,” for instance. I also wanted as many people to play with each other as mathematically possible. So it was suggested by Miles Okazaki and Steve Cardenas to shoot for a round-robin approach rather than setting certain bands, which seemed easier. This will allow more people to play for the first time together. Also, there won’t be any pre-made arrangements – and that’s for the better, because Monk’s music already conveys arrangement in its very nature.

BB: What do you think the “Monk on Guitars!” lineup says about the New York scene and today’s landscape of jazz guitar?

RA: Well, we could’ve done this for three nights with more guitarists, as there are so many interesting players in New York City, with a lot of views on Monk. But, of course, most of the players for this night’s lineup have already performed at Greenwich House, so there’s a connection there. We have a bunch of great guitarists – and bassists and drummers, too – so I can only say to people, don’t miss this rare opportunity to see them all together!

BB: What do you think it says that all these different performers are willing to come together for a cause, to support a series and a school?

RA: Something like this needs to happen now more than ever because of today’s socio-political climate and the economic state we’re in with the arts. The effort is going to have to be grass roots, and I think it’s amazing when musicians can come together and do something based purely on spirit. It brings us directly back to the reason why we started playing music in the first place.

Posted in