Work (2018)

The complete compositions of Thelonious Monk, solo guitar

Thelonious Monk at Minton’s, 1947. (Photo by William Gottlieb)

Album available for purchase here

About the recording:

Why make a Monk album? Could it possibly add anything to the dozens (maybe hundreds) of existing tribute projects? Why try to record all of the compositions? And who is even qualified to do such a thing? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but in any case here’s the story:

Okazaki in 1993, soon after getting the guitar used on this recording.

I began playing guitar as a child with typical easy classical pieces and popular songs, but things changed in my early teens as I began exploring the great improvisors of Black American Music and became obsessed with the works of Thelonious Monk (1917-1982). His work resonated with me on such a deep level that it singlehandedly sent me down the musical path that I continue to follow. As a youngster I picked up a dozen tunes or so off the albums, but at that time I didn’t have the necessary language to navigate through more than the most basic forms with any kind of authority or authenticity. In my twenties I acquired more vocabulary, but my technique was still not up to the task. In my thirties my chops were stronger, but I lacked a personal vision for the project beyond mere execution and imitation. Now I’m giving it a shot, although maybe later on I’ll feel I should have waited even longer, until I had enough experience and maturity to do justice to the material. In any case, the time has arrived and (to use a discarded Monk song title), “that’s the way I feel now.” [1]

I approach the music of Thelonious Monk with a combination of humility and experimentalism. Out of respect for the material, there are certain things that I didn’t allow myself to change: the melody, the harmony, the time signatures, the form. Out of the need for variety from a listener’s perspective, there is one area where I did allow wide latitude, which is rhythm. I take my cue in this area from Monk’s own playing, his continual shuffling of rhythmic angles and possibilities. Since this is a solo record, the listener may feel that things like the time signature and forms are being changed (for example, “Misterioso,” “Played Twice,” “Bright Mississippi,” “Teo”), but all of the tunes (with the exception of the waltz “Ugly Beauty”) are in common time. The beat or feel may become elastic (“Little Rootie Tootie,” “Who Knows,” “Well You Needn’t”), and forms are stretched to the extreme, but never abandoned. Some tunes have quite different tempos than the original, or go through shifting speeds (“Humph,” “Introspection”). My hope is that a variety of rhythmic approaches mixes things up in an engaging way for the listener.

With Steve Lacy and Irene Aebi, 1994

From an improvisational point of view, my guide on each composition was Monk’s advice to Steve Lacy from 1960: “Stop playing all those weird notes (that bullshit), play the melody!” [2]. I had a chance to play with Lacy once in 1994 and he gave me a similar comment: “Just stick with those notes, they are enough.” In Monk’s compositions, there is plenty of material to work with, and I try to make an improvisation from the information in the composition itself. That being said, the listener may hear plenty of “weird notes,” but sometimes the spirit of the moment leads down some unknown paths.

A few things triggered the beginning of this project during Monk’s centennial year, 2017. The first was a few days I spent with guitarist and Monk expert Steve Cardenas teaching in upstate New York, where we had some long conversations about Monk’s music on the guitar. At some point he showed me his fingering for “Four in One,” an elegant and obvious solution that made me realize I hadn’t taken a close enough look at that tune, even though I’d been playing it for years. Soon afterwards, I played in a concert of guitarists playing Monk repertoire that featured some great players (Cardenas, Jerome Harris, Liberty Ellman, Julian Lage, Rez Abbasi, Nels Cline), which got me thinking more about the possibilities of Monk on guitar.

Rocky Mount, NC

In 2017 Monk was in the air everywhere, so I kept being reminded about this potential project on the back burner. I began doing some informal research, rereading Robin Kelley’s biography and listening to old tapes of lessons where Kenny Barron took me on some Monk deep dives. I took a driving trip to New Orleans with the family which included a night Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where Monk was born. The idea of tackling all the tunes came after some communication with pianist (and exhaustive researcher) Ethan Iverson as he was curating a concert of the entire songbook for the Monk centennial. To the best of my knowledge, the complete book hadn’t been recorded on a single solo instrument, so that seemed like an interesting challenge. I began booking some local trio gigs to work out the material in public. Then I had some touring cancellations that afforded the time to sit down and get started. So I dove in, and as with all things Monk, it just got deeper and deeper.

My process was to work on one song at a time, spending as long as necessary before recording. This involved first revisiting the original records in depth. I found that I had many tunes to learn, and that the ones I knew needed many corrections. I scoured records for a specific voicing or melodic detail. I referred to Cardenas and Sickler’s book[3] and Dobbin’s transcriptions for help with things that are tough to get off the recordings (especially those early tunes like “Who Knows,” “Humph,” and “Hornin’ In”). I cross referenced Kelley’s book for historical context. An arrangement and vibe would come about naturally as I figured out a possible solution to the adaptation of the composition to the guitar. Then I’d turn on the microphones and improvise some takes, pick the best one, and move on. Using this approach, it took about a year to make it to the finish line.

Recording setup, Brooklyn, NY (isolated amp not pictured).

All songs were recorded with a Gibson Charlie Christian archtop guitar running through a Fender Twin amplifier without effects. Certain songs with multiple simultaneous parts (i.e. “Epistrophy,” “Friday the 13th”) would have been easier to overdub, but that would be against the spirit of this recording, which is meant to sound like a live performance. All songs are in the original key. I haven’t made any effort to clean up regular noises from the recording – at higher volumes the listener will hear breathing, grunts, string slides, squeaky chairs, foot tapping, Brooklyn ambulances, and rattling pieces inside of my old guitar or amp. My priority was to make a natural and lifelike improvisational performance, not a pristine document. Since each track uses the same minimalist setup, all of the sonic variety for the listener needs to come from the performance itself, and continually coming up with new approaches was by far the greatest challenge of this project.

Liberty Ellman

The number of compositions in the entire Monk catalogue varies depending on certain criteria, but the number (70) used on this recording is based on the list from the Cardenas/Sickler book which includes all of the commonly played tunes, several of the more informal blues heads and songs that Monk copyrighted but never recorded. Not included in this collection but listed for historical reasons in Kelley’s book are the blues improvisation “Round Lights,” the uncopywritten ballad “Dreamland,” a lost tune called “Harlem is Awful Messy,” and the long (and amazing) improvisation “Chordially.” Much credit is due to the brilliant guitarist and engineer Liberty Ellman, who mixed and mastered the 70 tracks, lending his ability to bring out a beautiful guitar tone. I asked Liberty to make it sound like somebody in your living room giving a solo concert, and he knew just what to do.

In terms of context, this album is indebted to previous recordings of Monk’s music on guitar. In particular, important recordings for me are Monk in Motian (with Bill Frisell), Peter Bernstein’s Monk, Joshua Breakstone’s Let’s Call This Monk, and especially Bobby Broom Plays For Monk. In terms of solo guitar as a format, I’d point the listener to masterworks by Joe Pass, Johnny Smith, and George Van Eps, Lenny Breau, and Derek Bailey.

Miles Okazaki, Bologna. (Photo by Dimitri Louis)

The tracks are divided into six albums, each a little under 50 minutes, and each album ends with a blues, the foundational sound of Monk’s music and the bedrock of guitar styles of African origin. When I was about 13 years old, a recording that I listened to many times was a long version of “‘Round Midnight” where Monk slowly works through variations and options. Later, someone turned me on to the recording of him doing this even more extensively on “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” These windows into the detail of Monk’s science had a big effect on me. Patience, persistence, focus, searching for the right sound. With this method in mind, the first track recorded for this album was “Work,” a fairly long meditation on each phrase of the melody. I imagined that I would go through the entire catalogue with this kind of detail, but soon discovered that this would make for a ridiculously bloated project, testing any listener’s patience. Monk at the piano is one thing, but nobody needs to hear me working out for hours on end. So I opted for more concise versions of each composition, leaving in the one long track to point toward certain possibilities. I think that this album may be of interest to guitar players who are wrestling with this same material and looking for solutions, and may also hold appeal to other musicians for my attempt to take unusual approaches to these well-worn compositions. But most of all, I hope that people unfamiliar with this music who stumble across this recording may be directed back to Monk’s original recordings, live with them, and truly dig the magnitude of his musical genius and legacy.

Album Cover: Train tracks in the neighborhood “around the Wye” in Rocky Mount, NC, where Thelonious Monk grew up. (photo by Miles Okazaki)

About the compositions:

A few words about each track, along with acknowledgements to various players who have influenced this project:

Volume 1

Locomotive (1954)[4]. Rhythm. The feeling of the train seemed like the right way to get things moving. (3:49)

Brilliant Corners (1956). Monk was credited with the quote, “All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians,” [5], and the form of this composition is like a fractal. The improvisation has Max Roach in mind. (3:22)

Gallop’s Gallop (1955). A challenging tune on the guitar, twists and tight corners. Although it would be easier with fingers, it’s played here with the pick in order to make the contours of the melodies pop. (4:00)

Light Blue (1957). A question and answer type of tune, where the second question is slightly different than the first, perhaps not satisfied with the first answer. Played with fingers. (2:19)

Evidence (1948). Justice, Evidence. Two crucial words for people of color in America. Played here with a heavy picking style adapted from my mentor Rodney Jones. Pedal point vibe influenced by Bobby Broom’s version of this tune. (4:20)

Crepuscule with Nellie (1957). Played straight, no improvisation. For Bill Frisell, whose version of this with Paul Motian and Joe Lovano is a milestone. (2:43)

San Francisco Holiday (1960). It seemed like this tune should have a lighthearted treatment, but the technical problems with the counterpoint are pretty daunting. So in the end maybe it is a kind of compromise, something like the alternate title, “Worry Later.” (3:33)

Monk’s Point (1964). The bends, for Albert King. (2:47)

Shuffle Boil (1955). According to Robin Kelley, this song is “Monk’s tribute to the black hoofer tradition” [6]. The guitar trades with itself here, using a rhythmic “tap dancing” technique. I was thinking often of a recent performance I saw of drummer Marcus Gilmore and dancer Savion Glover. (3:56)

Jackie-ing (1959). The pedal point combined with the melody reminded me of an Indian raga called “Yaman.” The meditative nature of an alap (the introduction of a performance) is hinted at here, combined with the regular changes and form of the tune. Low E is tuned down a tritone to Bb. For the sonic adventurer Nels Cline, who played this tune in a Monk concert last year. (3:18)

Criss Cross (1951). The original 8 bar bridge is used here (as opposed to the 6 bar bridge in the 1963 version). A sharp and aggressive style of picking seemed appropriate for this melody, which is jagged and insistent. (3:10)

Introspection (1947). Leading to D major, we find one of those mysterious Monk sound objects: A, E, Bb, F – Two fifths separated by a minor 9th (or two minor 9ths separated by a 5th). This chord is used as kind of pivot to change tempos. It never seemed necessary to leave the melody on this one, as it keeps revealing more of itself each time around without unnecessary embellishment. (5:19)

Functional (1957). Ending the set with a blues for the writer Barry Gifford, a dear friend who encouraged me to go ahead with this project after hearing a few of the first recordings. Always know, improvisation = storytelling. (3:25)

Volume 2

We See (1954). Innocence, curiosity, energy – qualities of children. This was in mind, as well as the bouncing, light touch of Mr. Kenny Barron, a master Monk interpreter who generously shared many of his insights with me onstage and off. (2:59)

Sixteen (1952). A seldom played tune. The little two note tag at the end of the melody decided to take over the improvisation. Straight time feel, for Pat Martino, who gave me encouragement at an important time. (2:45)

Misterioso (1948). Rhythmic variations on the melody. Despite the way it sounds, the performance is in common time the whole way through. (2:01)

Humph (1947). Rhythm changes with the classic dominant cycle starting on F#7. I follow some other less direct pathways in the improvisation, as well as a few tempo changes. Chord work inspired by Bruce Johnson, who gave me one mind-altering lesson in the late 90s. (2:32)

Teo (1964). Triple feel, Africa, and rhythmic illusions. Continuing the vibe from “Misterioso.” For David Gilmore, one of the modern rhythmic masters of the guitar. (3:45)

Hornin’ In (1952). A puzzle to transcribe for guitar because of the abundance of close intervals. Without those crunches, the tune won’t sound right. This is one possible solution. (4:05)

Raise Four (1968). This minimalist melody seemed to call for an abstract treatment. (1:37)

Skippy (1952). A notoriously thorny tune. The improvisation makes extensive use of Steve Coleman’s “alternate pathways” concept of dominant progression. Someone playing the regular changes along with this recording might hear the improvisation weaving in and out of the direct path. (4:03)

Pannonica (1956). Thinking of Monk’s playing on the celeste, this version uses natural harmonics on the guitar whenever possible. No real improvisation, as this approach proved to be so difficult that I could really only make it through one chorus. For the genius pioneer Lennie Breau. (3:24)

Think of One (1953). Medium swing – the tempo of choice for so many of Monk’s performances. An arrangement that requires constant switching between the pick and the fingers. (5:34)

Well You Needn’t (1947). Medium swing again. An early tune in Monk’s catalogue, but the main theme for improvisation is taken from the 1957 version on Monk’s Music, with the rising and falling counterline and the deceptive 8 bar intro. Like so many of these compositions, the things that seem simple can be treacherous. (8:44)

Bolivar Blues (1956). For Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd, and the essential album School Days. (6:12)

Volume 3

Monk’s Dream (1952). Dream logic – Monk teaches us that a solo doesn’t have to adhere to be “soloistic.” Here it’s just chords, comping for no one. I played this after listening to Elvin Jones’ great solo on this tune on Larry Young’s Unity. (4:09)

Little Rootie Tootie (1952). Built around that confounding opening chord, the train whistle that sounds three times but cannot be played on the guitar in any satisfying way. The solution here is to divide it up into different registers and inversions and see if the composite effect can approach the right vibration. For the uncompromising improvisor Derek Bailey. (3:49)

Eronel (1951). With the thumb, for Wes Montgomery. (3:31)

Thelonious (1947). In the groove, for Grant Green. (2:36)

Ruby, My Dear (1957). Weaving through the harmonic labyrinth, for Johnny Smith. (5:10)

Four in One (1951). Single note lines for Steve Cardenas, who showed me how easily the first line could be played in 8th position. Relaxed tempo. (5:35)

Blue Hawk (1959). A short meditation on the cluster (G, Ab, A) that can be heard on Monk’s original recording. (2:17)

Stuffy Turkey (1964). A version of the ornamented melody that Coleman Hawkins plays on the original “Stuffy,” with a couple of playful angles. For Mary Osborne, an overlooked master who recorded with Hawk in the mid 1940s. (2:13)

A Merrier Christmas (1959). A tune that Monk never recorded, but I’ve always been a fan of Mal Waldron’s unadorned style, and this is based on the version that he played on with Steve Lacy. (2:07)

Played Twice (1959). The phasing five beat figure halfway through the form is what gives this song its character. In this case, it expands into the whole song. (2:42)

Bemsha Swing (1952). A perpetual motion tune, turnarounds inside of turnarounds. Using some melodic concepts from Steve Coleman, I try here to put some more turnbacks inside of those, which turns into an extended improvisation. (7:09)

Blues Five Spot (1958). Thinking of the relentlessly swinging Five Spot recordings and especially the slippery style of Johnny Griffin. (3:58)

Volume 4

Bye-Ya (1952). Tropical vibe. Using a right hand “pandeiro” technique I learned in some lessons with Nelson Faria in Brazil years ago. Also thinking of one of my favorite guitarists of all time, the great João Bosco. (4:08)

Who Knows (1947). An obscure tune, and not a walk in the park. Played with an elastic tempo. (3:36)

Green Chimneys (1966). Playing around with E flats. Ideas about rhythmic figures to span long periods of static harmony. Mostly choked guitar. (5:12)

Blue Sphere (1971). Following Monk’s version, where the melody only emerges at the end of the improvisation. The improvisation sounds loose, but is actually in strict time. For Jean-Paul Bourelly. (4:54)

Ugly Beauty (1967). The only song not in common time. The wonderful opening chord is so crucial to the character of the song that the low E is tuned to D to get the full voicing. (2:56)

Oska T (1963). Another song with an impossible chord for the guitar that must be played somehow. In this case, the bottom five strings are tuned to the first chord of the song (Eb, Ab, Bb, F, C). The rest of the improvisation explores this strange sound-world. For grounded experimentalist Jerome Harris. (4:55)

Hackensack (1954). Fast tempo, with a few twists. For the heavyweight champion, George Benson. (2:35)

Ask Me Now (1951). Playing this on solo guitar begs the question of what to do in all of the spaces. Taking a cue from the title, an echoing question and answer seemed to be a good way to go. For Pat Metheny, whose album Question and Answer is a crucial step in the history of guitar. (5:16)

I Mean You (1946). Trying for a rolling rhythm, full of triples. For Emily Remler, who forever influenced the way that I play with some lessons in the late 1980s. (5:12)

52nd Street Theme (1944). As Monk never recorded this tune, the main reference for this version is Bud Powell’s version from 1951 [7]. Powell’s transposition of the melody by minor thirds is the idea behind the improvisation, which modulates between four keys. (4:24)

Something in Blue (1971). Ending the set again with a blues. For B.B. King, who I saw play in my formative years on a double bill with Miles Davis in 1991, and seemed to be speaking through the guitar. (4:21)

Volume 5

Nutty (1954). Duke Ellington called Monk “the baddest left hand in the history of jazz” [8]. It’s challenging on the guitar to solo while grabbing notes with the thumb, somewhat imitating a stride style. For Joseph Spence. (4:26)

Off Minor (1947). First recorded by Bud Powell, and his version is the one I’ve listened to the most. Hints of his solo come out here, especially on the bridge. (3:55)

Two Timer (late 1950s). A tune never recorded by Monk. Taking a cue from the title, I tried some ideas with two different tempos at the same time. (4:33)

In Walked Bud (1947). Beating the drum for Charlie Christian, the reason that I play guitar. (4:08)

Monk’s Mood (1947). The intro takes an idea from John Coltrane’s entrance on the 1957 Carnegie Hall concert. Anyone interested in the possibilities of human creativity should check out that recording. (6:04)

Let’s Call This (1953). Something like “reading between the lines,” maybe “playing between the notes.” For Brazilian guitarist and composer Garôto. (4:34)

Let’s Cool One (1952). Quarter notes, for Freddie Green (6:03).

Children’s Song (1964). This old man comes rolling home. Wandering off and then finding the way back to a simple melody. (3:30)

Boo Boo’s Birthday (1967). Children enjoy the danger of leaping and possibly crashing. (2:21)

Rhythm-a-ning (1957). Thinking of Monk’s flat-fingered technique led to this rough, percussive picking style. In order to avoid the beaten paths, the solo goes into some “negative harmony” territory. (3:25)

North of the Sunset (1964). Ending the set with a blues, continuing in the style of the previous tune. (4:08)

Volume 6

Epistrophy (1948). An attempt to get at the duple/triple tension of the 1957 version with Art Blakey on Monk’s Music. At some point it becomes too difficult to keep the two parts going and the train falls off the rails. (2:26)

Coming on the Hudson (1958). One of those tunes that will not work unless you know the melody cold. Putting one of these very specific figures in the wrong spot can create the feeling, as John Coltrane described, “as if you’d stepped into an empty elevator shaft.” [9]

Bright Mississippi (1961). Pee Wee Ellis has described how “Cold Sweat” had its origins in “So What.” This tune to me also sounded like it could have been a Jimmy Nolen guitar part, so I tried to give it a little of that flavor.

Trinkle, Tinkle (1952). Finger twister, for the virtuoso Joe Pass. (2:54)

Reflections (1952). A ballad for the legend Jim Hall. (5:47)

Brake’s Sake (1955). Interpreted as another train song. Still rolling, but almost time to hit the brakes. (4:19)

Straight, No Chaser (1951). Doesn’t always go down easy. Monk teaches us that we can appreciate the beauty of the rough, course, and dissonant. For Sonny Sharrock. (2:51)

Friday the 13th (1953). Counterpoint at a lazy tempo. Appropos to the title, I had bad luck with construction noise next door, but I liked the performance so just left the noise in there. (4:42)

‘Round Midnight (1947). What to do with this warhorse that hasn’t been done on the thousands of existing recordings? I decided to use Bud Powell’s solo from 1950 [10] as an alternate melody, mixing it with the original and improvising off of both of them. People familiar with Powell’s one chorus masterpiece will hear pieces of it appearing throughout. People who don’t know the solo can just assume that the hippest lines are Powell’s and not mine. For my mentor Rodney Jones, who plays a beautiful version of this song on solo guitar. (5:08)

Work (1954). Deconstruction – Monk’s music holds up under the microscope – each phrase can expand into a world of its own. At full speed, the sounds pass by in a continuous flow, but slowing down for a closer look never fails to reveal even more about the mastery and attention to detail involved in the architecture of Monk’s creations. (8:55)

Blue Monk (1954). Ending the album with a blues, of course. For Monk. (5:07)


-Miles Okazaki, Brooklyn, NY

June 2018


[1] Kelley, Robin. Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. Free Press, 2010. p. 566, the original title of “Monk’s Mood”

[2] Lacy, Steve. “Thelonious Monk’s Advice.” Lists of Note. Shaun Usher, Feb. 2012. Accessed June 2018.

[3] Cardenas, Steve, transc., Sickler, Don, ed. Thelonious Monk Fakebook. Hal Leonard, 2002.

[4] Dates for the compositions from Kelley, p. 563-569

[5] Gonzalez, Pearl. “Monk Talk.” Downbeat (Oct 28, 1971). p. 12-13

[6] Kelley, p. 194

[7] Powell, Bud. “52nd Street Theme.” The Amazing Bud Powell, Vol 1 (1951). Blue Note, 2001, CD.

[8] Kelley, p. 430

[9] DeVito, Chris, ed. Coltrane on Coltrane: the John Coltrane Interviews. A Cappella Books, Chicago, 2010. p. 333

[10] Parker, Charlie. “‘Round Midnight.” One Night in Birdland (1950). CBS, 1977, LP.

Recorded by Miles Okazaki, Sept 2017 – May 2018

Mixed and Mastered by Liberty Ellman, July 2018

All compositions by Thelonious Monk. Used with permission of Ultra International Music Publishing LLC d/b/a Ultra Empire Music (BMI), with the exception of:

“Bemsha Swing,” used with permission from Second Floor Music (BMI)

“Epistrophy,” “52nd St. Theme,” “I Mean You,” “In Walked Bud,” “Introspection,” “Monk’s Mood,” “Off Minor,” “Ruby, My Dear,” used with permission from Embassy Music Corp. (BMI)

“Well You Needn’t,” used with permission from Regent Music Corp (BMI)
“‘Round Midnight (66.66%)” used with permission from Warner Music (ASCAP)