Thelonious Monk is the best. But aside from “Round Midnight,” he didn’t really write the kind of songs you could sing. Or so I thought, until I found out about Carmen Sings Monk. It’s an entire album of Carmen McRae singing Monk tunes with lyrics by Jon Hendricks, Abbey Lincoln, and others. There are tunes here that you’d expect would work with lyrics (“Ruby My Dear,” “In Walked Bud”) and songs I never expected to hear sung (“Monk’s Dream,” “Pannonica.”) Carmen McRae was unquestionably the right woman for the job. She was a good friend of Monk’s, and her tartly unsentimental style matches his. She takes obvious pleasure singing this material. To my ears, her rendition of “Ugly Beauty” is even better than Monk’s original. “Round Midnight” has been sung many times, but McRae treats the jazz nerds to a version that combines all the different arrangements, from Dizzy Gillespie’s intro to Miles Davis’ ending.
My favorite tune from Carmen Sings Monk to sing is “Ask Me Now” (retitled “How I Wish…” for obscure copyright reasons.) Even Monk’smost abstract and intellectual tunes always make strong intuitive sense, and while this one looks daunting on the page, it’s well within reach of a normal person’s ear. The big arpeggios descending the chromatic scale aren’t easy to hit (even Carmen doesn’t quite nail them), but it’s fun to hunt for the pitches across the wide intervals. It helps to listen to Monk himself play it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18IWWDkRdmc
You can learn more about Carmen McRae here:
About the Curator - Ethan Hein
Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab (https://www.musedlab.org), Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza (https://musedlab.org/groovepizza). In collaboration with Soundfly, he has developed a series of online music theory courses (https://soundfly.com/courses/unlocking-the-emotional-power-of-chords). He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog (http://www.ethanhein.com), and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.