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

By Jim Aikin,

(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 Keyboardcover story for July '82.]


Our second perspective on "'Round Midnight" shows how extensively a tune can be reharmonized without losing its basic shape. After a somber intro (inspired by the left-hand figure in the first bar of the original tune), Beirach hits the original chords squarely at pivotal points in the progression, such as the Eb roots in bars 1 and 5 and the C7b5 in bar 7, but elsewhere reharmonizes freely. "If you stray too far for too long," Richie observes, "you lose the character of the tune. Reharmonization works best when you touch base with the original changes, so that the beauty of what you're inventing has some kind of context. Also, I'm trying to keep a balance harmonically among various chord types. There are simple triads, bitonal polychords, and occasional clusters.

"Each time the melody comes around, I try to give it a slightly different reharmonization. Compare bars 2 and 10 of the tune, for example. Changes of register are also very important in a solo piano piece, because contrast is what keeps the sonority from becoming boring." In the middle of the B section, he hits the top and bottom notes on the keyboard at the same time, but then moves immediately back to middle-register chords. The flexibility of the time adds to the sense of tension and release: Since the melody is being played straight, you know what will be happening next, but you don't know exactly when it will be happening. In the first bar of the tune, for example, the melody hangs on the Gb for an extra beat. Bar 4 is stretched out in the same way.

Incidentally, the final chord of "'Round Midnight" has always posed a harmonic conundrum for interpreters. A typically Monkish twist, it resolves an Eb minor progression to a straight major triad (with an equally sweet major 7th split note). Almost nobody uses this chord, whatever else they may do harmonically, but everybody has a different idea about what to use instead. At its first occurrence, just before the B section, Beirach uses the major 3rd, but combines the Eb triad with a D major triad to obscure it. At the end of the chorus, he uses a suspended 4th and 2nd instead, playing them so softly that they are no more than coloration of the open fifth.

Unfortunately, the key signature and forests of accidentals make the transcriptions more taxing to read through than the arrangements are to play. If you take the time to get them under your hands, we guarantee that you'll come away with a greater understanding of jazz harmony and solo piano techniques.

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