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Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (DVD)

Filmmaker Bruce Ricker couldn’t believe his luck. Michael and Christian Blackwood’s extensive 1968 footage of modern jazz pianist/composer Thelonious Monk – including the very private Monk offstage – was in excellent shape. The reels were, Ricker said, “just sitting there like the Dead Sea Scrolls of jazz.” Ricker, as coproducer, joins director and fellow producer Charlotte Zwerin (Gimme Shelter), executive producer Clint Eastwood and others to bring these “scrolls” to vibrant life. Their Thelonious Monk Straight, No Chaser combines the Blackwood footage of groundbreaker Monk in studio, on tour and behind the scenes with new interviews, archival photos and more to create a landmark aural and visual treat.

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This exemplary documentary about seminal jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk reaps the benefits of multiple blessings, including the skilled editorial hand of director Charlotte Zwerin and the patronage of executive producer (and erstwhile jazz pianist) Clint Eastwood. Most vital is the use of extensive 1968 footage, shot by Michael and Christian Blackwood, documenting the sometimes moody, sometimes puckish Monk in the studio, on tour, and off stage, which on its own would make this essential jazz viewing.

In post-World War II America, few cultural upheavals matched bebop for sheer exhilaration. Spawned by jazz musicians whose paydays typically came with larger swing ensembles, bop was as much bastard as stepchild, refining the technical ambitions of its parent while breaking free of swing's formalism to play fast and loose with harmony, melody, and tempo. That mercurial spirit made heroes of high-flying, technically flamboyant players like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell. Monk, by contrast, was as distinctive for his silences, crafting often skeletal melodies distinguished by unexpected, skewed harmonies. At one point dubbed the "high priest of bebop," he was more Zen archer, threading notes, warping chord structure, or stabbing "wrong" keys with a seeming looseness that in hindsight sounds as precise as haiku.

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser provides an intelligent portrait of this often reclusive, sometimes difficult artist, including telling glimpses of his volatility. A stormy studio session with Teo Macero, then Columbia Records' preeminent jazz producer, speaks volumes about Monk's very private approach to his muse. Perceptive interviews and glimpses of Monk's sunnier moments provide added depth, yet the real triumph is the generous catalog of classic Monk songs captured on camera. --Sam Sutherland

Thelonious Monk - Straight No Chaser

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