02 October 2005

thelonious monk - "crepuscule with nellie (take 2)" (from the london collection, vol. 1 lp, available for purchase here.)

in brief : the days are getting shorter, but it's not as late as you think ...

i joke that i like monk b/c i think i have as much technical proficiency on the piano as he does (and if you think the joke's bad, you should hear me play piano). which is like a kid looking at modern art and saying he could do just as well. in order to paint, or play, that "bad," you have to be really "good." like picasso, who got bored w/ the uncanny verisimilitude of his early work (torso, salmerón, &c.), monk saw something more in jazz piano than just the virtuosity of art tatum or the elegance of bill evans.
indeed, it is b/c of that playing that, his coltrane work aside, my favorite versions of his compositions are invariably his solo performance, and this version of "crepuscule with nellie," recorded in 1971, is no exception.

the story behind the song is important. "crepuscule with nellie" was written for his wife, nellie smith, in 1957 as she was undergoing surgery for a thyroid disorder. mrs. monk would survive and thrive, living for forty-five years after the composition that contains her name--and surviving its composer, her husband, by twenty years. though he couldn't have known it, monk only had a little over a decade left in his own life as he sat down to perform this version of the song. w/ that knowledge, the resounding final chord, echoing for a full twelve seconds, is both crepuscular and sepulchral.

for me, the song tends to call to mind a minor surgical procedure my mother had several years ago. it effected such a change in my father--or perhaps it only brought out into the open a side of him we were unaccustomed to seeing. "crepuscule" sounds like a private history, notes called forth from one and responded to by another, relations of being familiar to both but less so to those overhearing. so it was w/ my father's behavior toward my mother as he exhibited a tenderness and protectiveness that i can't recall having seen. certainly, the shock of seeing her in a hospital bed played its role, somewhere she hadn't been since giving birth to my sister twenty-five years earlier. but, now, it heralded not birth but its opposite. i can't speak for him, but for me it was a recognition that she was closer to the end than to the beginning.

"crepuscule" is from the latin word for twilight. it is, then, of that category of things which one can see as half-empty or as half-full, as a harbinger of night or as the day at its most glorious. if one chooses, as i do, it doesn't have to be entirely sepulchral. by this song, by that incident, one is reminded--my parents, i hope, were reminded that these are the golden days and, long or short as they are, and that they have them to spend together, to tarry awhile in the violet hour.

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