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For the second time, I caught guitarist ELLIOTT SHARP playing exclusively THELONIOUS MONK tunes. He’s currently got an album on the Clean Feed label called Sharp? Monk? Sharp! Monk!, its title conveying the sense of surprise some will feel at finding him purveying such standard repertoire. But for those who respect pedigree, it’s worth noting that Sharp studied with ROSWELL RUDD, who certainly knows his Monk.
It was a departure for Sharp in some ways, of course: he played acoustic guitar (a gorgeous Dell’Arte similar to what DJANGO REINHARDT used), he didn’t play his own material, he mostly didn’t use electronic processing (he did use an E-bow for a little while). Despite those accomodations, some listeners might find this the least Monk-like Monk tribute ever.
However, that’s just a surface impression, because what Sharp did was take Monkish attributes and emphasize them even further. Monk – unlike most beboppers – emphasized a song’s melody in his improvisations rather than just playing over the changes. Sharp took that tendency and used motivic material to build on, and also reduced motifs to gestures and developed them further. Monk leaned on the blues more than most boppers; Sharp long ago showed his command of the blues language (notably in his groups TERRAPLANE and HOOSEGOW) and here applied it to some thematic statements, which made a tune such as “Bemsha Swing” at times sound like it came out of the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s. Unusually for pianists, Monk managed to perform the seemingly impossible feat of bending pitches on a piano; of course, this is much easier on guitar, and Sharp took full advantage (including applying slide to “Well You Needn’t”). Monk’s love of dissonance had less tolerant contemporaries convinced he was just playing wrong notes; Sharp heightened the dissonance factor with an avant-gardist’s love of small intervals. Monk was very specifically a pianist who exploited the sound of his instrument and had a varied palette of timbres; Sharp’s instrument is, again, more naturally versatile; on “Epistrophy” he even constructed a counterpoint line by plinking below the bridge.
Sometimes Sharp even played relatively straight; his version of ”’Round Midnight” was breathtakingly beautiful in its delicate starkness. But usually things got wild. He only used the head-improv-head structure about half the time; sometimes he started out deconstructing the material right away, sometimes he constructed freeform fantasias that flow from one Monk piece/extrapolations thereon to another with brief or fragmentary thematic statements like small signposts. Most of the time he built up tiny motifs extracted from the themes, whether melodic or rhythmic; the angularity of Monk’s music has never been more strongly emphasized, with so many sharp edges (I guess I’ll intend that pun).
Even without a knowledge of Monk’s music, this would have been a thrilling evening of virtuoso improvisation crossing genre boundaries.
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