Fred Hersch on Thelonious Monk

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We’re celebrating MONKTOBER with lessons, interviews and archival features all focused on legendary jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.

As today is Monk’s actual birthday, we tracked down fellow jazz piano great Fred Hersch to get his take on Monk’s musical mastery.

Your new album Open Book features Monk’s song “Eronel.” What does his music mean to you?

I know it’s his big centennial celebration, but I basically play a Monk tune in every set I play. I don’t know when I started doing that particular ritual, but it’s become something that I, my band and the audience have come to expect. After you play an entire set of music, there’s something basic about getting to a Monk tune. Each one has its own particular kind of DNA – some of them are like puzzles that you have to live with for a very long time before you begin to understand them. And there’s always so much to play off of – not just the harmony, but the melodic motives as well. For some reason, I’ve been known as a Monk player – I might actually have done the first solo piano CD when I was on Nonesuch entitled Thelonious – Fred Hersch Plays Monk. Here I am, a Midwestern, white, gay, Jewish guy, and then there’s Monk who’s obviously a completely different kind of person from a different era and background. But there’s something in his music that I find challenging enough to do something with that isn’t an imitation - without using pianistic devices like whole-tone scales, or spiky little runs. I try to not do those and get to something from the notes themselves. I’ve played Monk with Joe Henderson and Sam Jones, and with people that knew him and were around him. So it’s always fun to try and put his music through my own filter. With “Eronel,” Monk shared credit with Sadik Hakim. And nobody knows exactly who wrote what!

Monk’s songs almost require the precision of contemporary classical music. You can’t just wing them!

Right. He was a serious composer and he knew what he was doing. I’m told he spent years finishing and perfecting some of his tunes. So you want to honor the tunes as much as possible, while still being yourself. But you’re right about the precision – fortunately, there’s a great Monk Fake Book by Steve Cardenas that’s really accurate. Now we have those kind of resources, but when I was living in Ohio, I had to literally learn them by ear.