Thelonious Monk’s shadow still looms large in the music world some 35 years after his death. It wasn’t until guitarist Elliott Sharp studied at Bard College in the early ’70s that he really got to know the pianist/composer’s work, exploring it at the behest of his teacher, trombonist Roswell Rudd. And once he did, he was hooked.
“I’ve always kept an ear toward Monk, no matter what else I’ve been doing,” Sharp says, speaking from his studio in Manhattan. “He had such a reserved but very sardonic way of playing. The melodies were very simple and catchy in a childlike way. And the way he would user minor sevens for this percussive attack that would bend notes in a way that it no longer sounded like a piano.”
Since then, Sharp has used Monk’s compositions as practice pieces and performed them during live gigs. In 2003 he decided to record some for posterity, working out arrangements of five of Monk’s finest works and performing them on a stunningly resonant Dell’Arte Grande Bouche, a gypsy jazz acoustic, for the 2006 album Sharp? Monk? Sharp! Monk!
To celebrate what would’ve been Monk’s 100th birthday, Sharp’s performing the focused live set “Sharp Plays Monk” this week at Classic Pianos. He plays “Bemsha Swing” and “Well You Needn’t” with a feline interest, batting and clawing at the familiar melodies with his handpicked attack, and, at times, warmly curling around them.
“I wanted to stay true to my own vocabulary of guitar and to Monk’s compositions,” Sharp says. “I stick with the forms, but sometimes I’ll focus in on one chord or take one motif and explore it. Sort of like Sonny Rollins used to take one simple motif and tear it apart, then rebuild it over and over in this very obsessive compulsive way, [and] make sure he’s wrung out every single aspect of it.”