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For the First Time, Thelonious Monk’s Songbook Swings Solo

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

Mr. Okazaki used no overdubs or effects and never changed a piece’s key, time signature or central melody. But he arrived at an engrossing, nearly five-hour collection that sounds entirely new. On his rendition of “Light Blue,” a swaying, mesmeric ballad, Mr. Okazaki makes it through the melody twice using only single notes, piquant and quavering, with no chords.

On “Nutty,” he veers toward the traditional — intimating Monk’s stride-piano technique by way of early ragtime guitar, then running through a rising sequence of diminished chords like a bebop guitarist. Throughout the album, especially when Mr. Okazaki chucks out fast and syncopated undercurrents on the lowest strings, you can feel the influence of Mr. Coleman, whose music draws from across the African diaspora to make a thick-bodied, often unswinging funk.

Mr. Distler, on the other hand, said he worked primarily from paper — lead sheets and scores — rather than by listening closely to records. Also a composer, radio D.J. and critic, he began playing the full Monk book a few years ago in marathon concerts. His style in this repertory is jocular to the point of insouciance — unsurprising, considering his past works include easy-listening interpretations of Beethoven and Brahms, and a string quartet called “Mister Softee Variations.”

Even if you recognize the melodies, Mr. Distler’s recordings feel almost nothing like Monk. The up-tempo jounce of “Monk’s Dream” and “Criss Cross” has been turned into surface-skimming, 12-tone dashes, with debts to Cage and Stockhausen. “Bemsha Swing” has undergone a conversion from Caribbean pseudo-blues to slippery, Debussy-influenced glide.

On “Light Blue,” despite the tune’s gentle nature, Monk tended to lean hard on the highest note of each phrase, using it to pivot hard back down. Mr. Distler does almost the opposite — he lets that note drift, becoming the top of a gentle arc. Elsewhere in the piece, he waits a little bit less than Monk would have between chords, erasing the potato-sack thwack of syncopation that typically defines the tune. Still, I’m not so sure Mr. Distler is right that Monk would come out hard against him. His interpretations are so distant from the originals that I can almost see Monk laughing at the whole thing with bemused satisfaction.


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