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)
TJG: You’ve got a book out called Fundamentals of the Guitar on Mel Bey, which deals with harmonics on the guitar and some extended guitar techniques—how did you incorporate this on the Monk album?
MO: It’s kind of an area that people don’t study that much, like, there are a few tracks where I tried to really integrate harmonics. The most extreme one is “Pannonica.” I was listening to the version on Brilliant Corners with the celeste that Monk plays on there. To me that sound was like guitar harmonics, so I did a version just using the natural harmonics of the strings where you can’t get all the notes (not false harmonics)—you can’t get a B-flat for instance—so the challenge was to mix the natural harmonics in with the regular [fretted] notes and have it all be similar dynamically which is pretty difficult, especially when you get up into the higher partials like the 9th and 10th partials, for instance. If you take all the partials of the sixth strings up to the seventh partial and combine together to get one big scale you can get 26 notes. Not all different notes, but notes in different octaves—a few different Es and As, and you can also get some weird notes like a D# on the B string but they’re a little hard to catch. The person I was thinking of with that stuff was Derek Bailey, who was kind of the model for thinking about how to integrate harmonics and regular lines in the same texture. He’s one of my heroes of improvisation, especially on the guitar.
TJG: Are there any other guitar interpretations of Thelonious Monk that you checked out while preparing for this project?
MO: I didn’t check any out while I was working on it, but I checked them out in the past, but I tried not to listen while I was working on it. Bill Frisell’s stuff with Paul Motian is quite important and is stuff that I listened to a lot back then and more recently a record with Bobby Broom: it’s called Bobby Broom Plays for Monk.
TJG: Did you record the album yourself? What was the setup and process? What about post-production?
MO: Yeah I did a rough recording [myself]. I recorded in my apartment with a microphone on the guitar and a microphone—the amp with the amp covered up with some blankets—really basic, you know, just into the computer, and my roughs were very rough, all over the place sonically because the mics were in different places on different days. I didn’t record it all in one session, I recorded it over 8 months—September to May— a gestation period, I guess (laughs)… Then I took it to Liberty Ellman [of Henry Threadgill’s Zooid] who hooked me up with the balancing and getting it to sound natural—he had to do some EQ to get the amp sounds more consistent and balancing out the strings and the amp; he spent a while on that. We didn’t add any effects, but we just wanted to get it sounding natural and pleasing to the ear.
TJG: How does Monk’s music relate to the music you’re writing separate from this album—is it still inspiring you? Still relevant? Folkloric? How does it all connect to your process, philosophy and practice?
MO: Yeah it’s the model, I think, for creating a body of work that is consistent and durable and functional and emotional—it has all of those things, and, this is outside of talking about what the material is, located in time and everything. But in terms of how it relates, it’s the goal, what you want to do as a composer: you want your work to be consistent; have an identifiable sound; be connected to the past and extending that on some level. Me working on Monk is just doing my due diligence in terms of paying some respect to this tradition and then also trying to understand how it might be possible to create works on that level—things that can last, things that can stand on their own, and be used for other people to learn from them. They’re not just flavor of the month or something like that. These things are timeless. These compositions are timeless.
So that’s the extreme model with these masters, it’s not like I ever really think I’ll get there but it’s something to aim for and you might as well aim for it, or you may as well engage with it. It’s like, if you’re a classical violinist, at some point, you may want to tackle the violin partitas and sonatas by Bach—a lot of violinists go through that and record them all—I see it as like it’s a body of work that may not be as much as Monk’s stuff but it’s a lot. It doesn’t mean that they spend their entire career playing Bach, but that’s a mountain that they have to contend with at some point, if they’re gonna deal with that particular instrument. Monk’s like that—an undeniable presence in the history of composition. I don’t really want to just do it halfway. I like to be thorough about it.
TJG: What do you think of Monk’s solo playing over jazz standards and how does that relate to your approach? Do you still play standards these days?
MO: Well the way Monk plays standards, he transforms them into his perspective or way of doing it. I spent many years playing standards and playing with singers, and I teach a lot now and students bring standards to me and we work on them and I show them how I learn which is listening to lots of different versions, and sometimes I also go back to the sheet music though—if you go back to someone like Harold Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” and go back to the sheet music—there’s a lot of stuff in there that people don’t usually play. There’s a lot of details that get lost over the years that become ii-V’s and stuff. Monk’s music has that extreme level of detail, where you can keep digging and digging with the microscope, and part of this project made me realize all the details I was glossing over. It’s like telling the same story or joke over and over again and it evolves over time and you forget what the original was and some of the details change, so going back and checking is a good thing to do—something I also do with standards—but all these composers have a different thing going on: Cole Porter has a different thing from Harold Arlen, and he has a different thing from Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin and Gershwin—they all have different things that they do that are part of their personalities, but they all get lumped into thing of Tin Pan Alley tunes and standards that are all one list, but I try to remember that these are all very different people with different approaches. Like, if you talk about rhythmic feel and you talk about a bunch of piano players alive at the same time, for instance: Wynton Kelly, and Red Garland, early Herbie Hancock and late Art Tatum and late Bud Powell and Ahmad Jamal—you know (laughs)—these are people in the same area of music, but they’re all totally different if they’re playing the same tune or playing a blues: it’s all gonna be different! So I see tunes like that also, and compositions are like that if you’re willing to engage with the details.
TJG: Is there anything coming up with this fall that you’re excited about or something you’re practicing that’s gonna surface at the show?
MO: This show came up kind of last minute and it almost coincides with Monk’s birthday, so that’s cool. Then for the rest of the year, I have some touring with Amir ElSaffar in Europe that’s gonna be cool. The thing I’m practicing the most is a project with Matt Mitchell—we’re recording a new album, and his music is kinda like Monk’s music in a way: you can’t ever practice it quite enough—you’re never gonna really quite gonna get it, but you can do as much as you can—his music is extremely detailed—so I’m working on that and I’m also trying to get in shape for the marathon on November 4th, in terms of non-musical stuff. I’ve finished this study phase with the Monk project and I’m going back to writing—going back to my next Trickster-type project for Pi Recordings.
Miles Okazaki plays the music of Thelonious Monk at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, October 5, 2018. Mr. Okazaki, on guitar, will be joined by Damion Reid on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.