Lesson: Two Views of Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight"—A Classic Tune Then & Now

September 28, 2017

(This article originally appeared in the April ’85 issue of Keyboard magazine.)

The Titles were as odd and evocative as the tunes themselves, or the man who composed them: "Epistrophy." "Well, You Needn't." "Off Minor." "Shuffle Boil." "Crepuscule With Nellie." Their angular momentum generally conserved, in a peculiar but unforgettable way, the essence of the hard-driving bop style. Thelonious Monk is best remembered today, however, for an almost-but-not-quite mainstream ballad, '"Round Midnight." This classic 32-bar melody (sometimes erroneously called '"Round About Midnight") has been recorded by dozens of major jazz artists. With its instantly recognizable opening phrase and supple chord progression, it is a benchmark against which players still measure the individuality of their styles.

Monk himself recorded '"Round Midnight" several times, including at least two solo piano versions. The one whose intro and first chorus are transcribed on the following pages was recorded in April 1957; originally issued on the album Thelonious Himself (Riverside, 235 (out of print)], it can now be heard on The Thelonious Monk Memorial Album [Milestone (dist. by Fantasy)]. To see the kind of transformations that the tune lends itself to, we called on Richie Beirach, who sent us a transcription of the intro and first chorus of an improvisation that he played on his 1983 solo album Continuum [Baybridge (dist. by Teichiku Records, Japan), KUX-182-B]. This transcription begins below.

The two versions are alike in their emphasis on harmonic subtlety. Though the music is not easy to play, the stern mood of the tune seems actively to resist empty displays of passagework. Monk was never a flashy player anyway; the fast run that appears again and again in his performance is only an arpeggiation of a Bb7b5 chord. But this transcription makes it clear how wrong Monk's detractors are to dismiss his playing as careless or sloppy. Again and again, we see the most precise attention paid to chord voicing and sonority. Monk doesn't always do what we expect him to, but his unusual approach gave his playing a unique kind of expressive power. 

Monk often used "split notes," striking a second key along with the main one and immediately releasing it. This is a common jazz piano technique, but one that he raised to new heights. There are a number of different types of split notes in this solo—sustained eighth-notes and even a few quarters, sixteenths that are strongly hit but quickly released, conventional grace notes that slide into the main note, "ghost tones" that are struck lightly at the same time as the main note, and larger intervals (thirds and fourths) used in place of the expected minor or major second. When one of these is buried in a chord rather than placed on top, it gives the chord another dimension of color. We note also that the sustain pedal is deployed sparingly and with care. In bar 4, for example, the rising
Dadd#9#5b5 is not pedaled. To Monk, evidently, the moment when a note is released is as important as the moment it is struck. [Ed. Note: For more on Thelonious Monk and his piano style, see the Keyboard cover story for July '82.]

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