Today I will be reviewing a album by the great Thelonious Monk. Monk is known for his unconventional style, his unique personality, and his ability to create great tunes. Straight No Chaser is a perfect blend of all of this. This album is textbook Monk. Plenty of melodic ideas being developed throughout tunes, dissonant chords, and classic tracks. With Charlie Rouse on sax, Larry Gales on bass, Ben Riley on drums, and Monk of course on piano. This album is a classic and one of the best albums Monk has ever created. Let’s begin.
“Locomotive is the first track off of Straight No Chaser and what a great one to start with. The song begins with a melodic idea that really sticks with you. Monk begins the melody solo playing the rhythmic idea and adding some dissonant sounding chords to go with it. Immediately you know you’re listening to a Monk tune. Right after the sax comes in and they play the head in unison. The sax moves on to the next section but Monk stays with the same melodic idea underneath. Then they both come together to the same melodic idea. It’s very interesting the way they play the head of this tune. Rouse solos first and gets into his groove immediately. Plenty of blues and bebop verbiage he just keeps on blowin. Sounds great, but not much interaction with the rhythm section. Monk solos next and has a different approach. Leaves more space, plays different ideas,develops them, the disregards them. He also incorporates parts of the melody into his solo which is a nice touch. After Monk’s solo Rouse comes in and solos again. He leaves a little more space and develops ideas a bit more than before. After Rouse’s solo they come back to the head and play it the same way they did before and end the tune.
Following “Locomotive” comes “I Didn’t Know About You”. While the tune is beautiful and a nice change of pace. I’m going to move on to the title track “Straight No Chaser”. This song is a jazz standard that is still played to this day with great regularity. It’s a blues tune and it begins with Monk playing the head completely solo and then again, but in unison with Rouse. Rouse solos first and sticks to the blues based feel the tune has established. I especially like Monk’s accompaniment on this tune. He doesn’t play every chord and dosen’t let his brash style over power the soloist. In fact he helps give the solo energy and keep it moving forward. Not that Rouse needed a push is putting on a blues clinic on this one. Monk solos using a lot of the same things he did in “Locomotive”. Using space, developing ideas, and hinting to the melody. You can tell his solo is inspired by the head of this tune. He comps similar to how he did for Rouse. Not every chord, leaving space to allow the melodic line to stay independent and not be overwhelmed. Further in his solo he leaves a lot of space and the bass begins to play around and not just walk. Doing this creates a balance and makes everyone more involved. It’s not just about Monk soloing, now they are just grooving on the tune. The drum solos and Rouse comes back and solos again. Following Rouse’s solo we come back to the head and conclude the tune.
As usual I will skip a few more tracks and go into depth on a couple more tunes. It’s interesting on my version of Straight No Chaser which I believe is the standard version. There are two takes of “I Didn’t Know About You” I enjoy the the second version on the album the most. The tune is a great example of a well played ballad. Monk is known for his aggressive style but he finds a nice balance here and manages to play the tune with elegance and grace. Monk solos first followed by Rouse. Rouse also plays this ballad perfectly. Elements of the blues, hints very subtly to the melody at times, and plays with space which allows the listener to appreciate the rhythm section that much more.
The final tune “Green Chimneys” is a great one to end on. It’s so Monk. Starts with a simple melodic idea and just expands from there. First Monk plays the head then the sax takes over the duties of playing the melody, Monk still steps in and plays in unison along with some rhythmic hits. Rouse solos first and is clearly influenced by the head. He uses similar rhythmic patterns in his solo. The solo just fits in and matches with the written parts very well. Monk solos next and does a very similar thing. Lots of space, lots of rhythmic development, and plenty of dissonance. Be sure to listen to Monk’s comping on this and all of his solos. They are just as much of a part of his soloing as his melodic ideas are. Rouse plays something very similar to the melody again. One could argue he is soloing again, but it sounds to me like he is just doing a reinterpretation of the melody. Either way they come back to the exact head after and conclude the tune.
Straight No Chaser is a masterpiece. One of Monk’s greatest works. (I have my own opinion as to which album of Monk’s is my favorite, but I’ll probably review that one some other time) With a great group of musicians, jazz standards, and unique and still refreshing to this day compositions. Straight No Chaser has stood the test of time and continues to be one of the essential jazz albums to own. Do yourself a favor and grab a copy if you haven’t done so. You will not regret this purchase I guarantee you.