Thelonious Monk’s syntactic dissonances

Thelonious Monk has long been celebrated for his playing as much as for his compositions, but his pianism continues to occasion critical unease; a defensiveness is detectable in discussions of his technique even today.

Considerations of Monk’s playing tend to avoid or finesse peculiarities that raised questions about his ability in the first place; these include the jarring dissonances that strike some listeners as mistakes. An examination of his dissonance usage suggests two analytic categories: timbral dissonance and syntactic dissonance.

Monk’s 1968 solo recording of ’Round midnight exemplifies his use of syntactic wrong-note dissonances. Neither errors nor merely facets of Monk’s tone, their significance is bound up with their wrongness: They make sense because they sound wrong in a meaningful way, as significations on musical norms.

This according to “The right mistakes: Confronting the old question of Thelonious Monk’s chops” by David Feurzeig (Jazz perspectives V/1 [April 2011] pp. 29–59).

Today is Monk’s 100th birthday! Above, in 1969; below, the recording in question.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Reception

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