Guitarist Miles Okazaki, is coming off the release of an extremely ambitious Thelonious Monk solo guitar album which includes all 70 of the composer’s works (the first of its kind). The six-album opus, aptly entitled Work (the title of one of Monk’s trickier tunes), has been sending a wave throughout the jazz community, including a lengthy feature e in The New York Times.
Okazaki has been an extremely active member of the jazz community in New York and worldwide for the last 20 years. At the Jazz Gallery in particular, has presented his own groups alongside working as a member of Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, Jonathon Finlayson’s Sicilian Defense, as well as with Patrick Cornelius, Mary Halvorson, and others—forging a wise and soulful sound, always pushing the concepts of jazz rhythm and composition in new directions.
We spoke to Miles over the phone—amidst a very busy day of rehearsing and other work—to discuss his Monk album and his approach to the upcoming show this Friday at the Gallery.
The Jazz Gallery: Congrats on your recent Monk album Work, which we are excited to celebrate at the Gallery this coming Friday. What did your day look like today, in terms of “Work”?
Miles Okazaki: Thanks! Yeah, been busy: travel yesterday; took the two kids to school early this morning; rehearsal in 45 minutes, so packing it in today; gig tomorrow and then another gig!
TJG: Your Monk solo guitar project is made up of 6 albums. How do you plan on presenting that at the Gallery with drummer Damien Reid?
MO: Yeah, it’s 6 albums or 70 tracks total. we’re gonna play Monk compositions, now— I’ll tell you, there are no arrangements on the album really, it’s just improvisations pretty much, certain approaches in form. It may be totally different, but the main thing is that the approach to the Monk music on the album is rhythmically based, so I figured with drums it might emphasize that. Damion is someone I’ve played with for a long time and we have a certain way of playing duo so I thought that would be cool for the Gallery
TJG: How did you first discover Monk’s music and what were your first impressions?
MO: I didn’t see Monk live, so it was through records… records in my house, in particular, one where he’s playing “‘Round Midnight”—a long version where he’s working it out—he’s sort of practicing—it was on some sort of compilation… and then there was the record Misterioso, the one at the Five Spot with Johnny Griffin. I really like the live records and what he was doing rhythmically—the rhythmic things were the things that grabbed me. I didn’t understand the harmonics at that point— at twelve or thirteen years old—but I could get into the rhythm and the phrasing and things like that, even tunes like “Straight No Chaser” where the phrase is moving around on the beat and things like that. I just loved that feeling of being confused [laughs].
TJG: How do you adapt Monk’s music for the guitar? Is that hard?
MO: If you wanna play anybody’s music, you have to play it on your instrument, so if I play Bach I play on guitar even though he didn’t write it on guitar or Coltrane I play guitar so I didn’t have any choice to adapt for guitar. I’ve been playing Monk’s music for a long time, for thirty years or so, one of the reasons why—his voicings and language—works well on the guitar is that it’s quite open in terms of voicings and things like that. Even complex harmonic compositions like “Crepescule with Nellie” and things like that which are very specific with voicings—you can get most of them on the guitar because of the way he plays. It’s quite different from someone like Herbie Hancock or Bill Evans or someone where the voicings are very close. Guitar players are in general attracted to Monk’s music in terms of playing it accurately for that reason. A lot of the songs had technical challenges with a lot of choices, because you only have one hand!
TJG: What was your practice and process for getting all the music together? How did you get them under your fingers? Was there a regimen or a timeline?
MO: Just one step at a time; one tune at a time, and finish a tune and go to the list and go to the one I wanted to do next and do the harder ones first, as well as the ones I didn’t know, and just practice, practice, and if I didn’t know it, I had to memorize it. I had to go listen to the recording and figure it out, you know, and figure out a way to play it in a way that seemed to be as accurate as I could be, and then figure out a way to practice it until it became something that wasn’t just copying, until it had some kind of meaning or feeling, and then, you know, somehow, make it different from all the other ones that have already been recorded which became more and more difficult as I recorded more and more stuff, so I was like now what, i can’t do another thing in this technical approach. so the technical challenge was really extreme—probably the most extreme technical challenge I’ve put for myself on the guitar. I don’t really usually do that, I’m usually more about being in an ensemble and having all the parts go together, you know, which is not—technically—that intense, it’s more about how you’re hearing and more about musicianship on the level of interaction, I have to imagine the group! (laughs)