Pausing only long enough to answer the first starter question on University Challenge before either team have hit their buttons [chuck : a five letter word meaning to touch someone under the chin, a cut of beef, a way of throwing et cetera], and making sure that my copy of Mrs Dalloway [Penguin Modern Classics edition with the featureless Vanessa Bell portrait of her sister, Virginia, reproduced on the cover, and purchased by me, I note from the fly leaf, in April, 1974] is in my coat pocket, I head out for this Monday’s session at the Oxford, the last of the season, and featuring the band Thelonious, a four-piece dedicated to playing the music of the great jazz pianist and composer, Thelonious Monk.
What a lark! as Mrs Dalloway might say. What a plunge!
On down Fortess Road, past the primary school, the shop selling books in Greek and Latin; the building, formerly the working men’s club where my father and his father were members and my uncle was the secretary [charabanc outings to Southend and Canvey Island]; on past the Co-op and the old post office to the corner outside the station, where Natasha Boon is still selling the last of her bouquets of flowers [Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.] before packing everything away for the evening. (Usually finishing earlier, but this is close to Christmas, the tree already standing there, lit, sharing this space with several benches cemented securely to the ground and the coffee wagon of Bean About Town, covered already and closed till the morning.)
Upstairs in the Oxford there’s every sign this is going to be a busy evening and I’m fortunate to get a seat at a table close to where the band will play, the drums already set up and in place, microphones positioned (for this is to be a live recording, all mobile phones to airplane mode, if you please) and, still with some thirty minutes or so to go, I prop my copy of Mrs Dalloway up against the glass (half of draft Peroni, inoffensive if little else) and start to read.
What was she trying to recover? What image of white dawn in the country?
I have an album, an lp, That’s the Way I Feel Now: a Tribute to Thelonious Monk, released in 1984, for which the producer, Hal Willner, assembled a wonderfully varied selection of interpretations of Monk tunes recorded by a similarly varied selection of likely and unlikely people. Carla Bley and Peter Frampton; Dr John and Joe Jackson; Steve Lacey and Roswell Rudd – this last pair a clear inspiration for the band I’m about to hear.
Thelonious is Martin Speake on alto saxophone, Hans Koller on euphonium, Calum Gourlay on bass and David Dyson on drums, and, for some time now, they have set themselves the task, outside the music they play with other aggregations, other bands, to learn Monk’s music, all seventy or so compositions, until they know it sufficiently by heart, know it inside out (for that is how some of it seems) to the point where they can play it in their own way, their own style (which owes more than a little, as I’ve suggested, to Messrs Lacey and Rudd, especially in the nature of Roswell Rudd’s trombone sound as reinterpreted here by Koller’s euphonium) without ever losing that particular feel and flavour that renders it clearly Thelonious Monk.
One advantage of Thelonious’ immersive approach is that you get to hear tunes of Monk’s you know well, Brilliant Corners, for instance, along with others rarely heard: San Francisco Holiday, also known as Worry Later; Played Twice, the title referring to the structure of the song.
In the unison passages, Speake’s alto is the dominant voice, clearly articulated, little vibrato; the deep notes of the euphonium, not unlike a bass trombone, keeping things grounded, trundling happily forward (that’s sometimes how it seems, a sort of wobbly, jogging motion like a sparky old train trundling jerkily along – but that’s in Monk’s rhythms, too) while Gourlay’s bass threads things together and Dyson’s drums chatter (trains again, shifting track) rather than drive in a more orthodox, some might say old-fashioned, manner, more the snare drum and less the ride cymbal, still room for an occasional small explosion, rim shot, clash of cymbal, exclamation.
Speake’s solos are fluent, assured; Koller urges more variety and movement from his naturally lugubrious instrument than should be possible. The crowd – the place is full to capacity, people standing at the rear and in the doorway – intently listening; there’s applause at the end of solos, admiring but not raucous (that live recording), everyone, most people, conscious that this is something special. The young woman with the capacious tartan scarf and New Balance sneakers, face largely immobile, what’s she thinking? The Chinese guy sneaking pictures. The drummer’s friends, beaming from the front row. (Great to see you! Thanks for coming.) Joe’s dad. Men with beards.
Not unlike the band, I’ve set myself the happy task of re-reading – or, in some cases, reading for the first time, all of Virginia Woolf’s writing, the fiction anyway. Dipping into the letters, the diaries. This edition of Mrs Dalloway I bought when I was teaching A level students, the modern paper, in Stevenage. And it isn’t too fanciful, it seems to me, sitting there, fingers occasionally drumming (all but silently, I hope) on the back of Mrs Dalloway, to suggest there are links between Virginia Woolf’s prose – shifting, stop-starting, turning back on itself, forever making odd angles – and Monk’s compositions. Idiosyncratic. Modernist and modern. Surprising. Startling.
Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed. But the close withdrew; the hard softened. It was over – the moment.
But there’s this …
And this …