Journey into silence with the music of Thelonious Monk at Portsmouth Guildhall

He was one of the great jazz mavericks, writing standards like Round Midnight, and Straight, No Chaser.

Wednesday, 15th November 2017, 9:22 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 11:35 am
Monk Misterioso

But for the past few years of his life Thelonious Monk largely retreated from public view into silence until his death in 1982.

Monk Misterioso is a show that explores the pianist’s music and life in the 100th anniversary year of his birth.

Jazz singer and theatre director Filomena Campus devised the show, combining Monk’s music and text by Stefano Benni.

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The show had its first successful outing in 2006 and was at the Edinburgh Festival in 2009.

‘Last year I was talking to John Cummings, the director of the London Jazz Festival,’ says Filomena, ‘and we were talking about Misterioso, and he said, why don’t you think about doing it in 2017 because it’s the centenary of Thelonious Monk? I thought that would be nice.

‘I love Monk so much, and I love the text by Stefano Benni who’s one of the most famous writers in Italy, and it’s so beautiful, such a surreal visionary way of looking at Monk’s mind and his works.’

The show has two performers representing Monk: ‘One is the wonderful Pat Thomas, one of the greatest avant-garde pianists we have in the UK – and he also looks like Monk! He’s going to represent the silence and the music of Monk.

‘The text is going to be performed by Cleveland Watkiss who was nominated for a Mobo Award and last week he won the Parliamentary Jazz Award for the best jazz vocalist – he’s going to be acting and singing.

‘The rest of the band is an all-star band, plus projections by SDNA, two artists from London with lots of surreal moments.

‘We’re going to bring some elements of theatre inside the frame of a concert. It’s challenging because some people will be just expecting a gig, but it’s much more than that.’

Filomena wanted to create the show after reading Benni’s original Italian text, and ‘completely fell in love with it’. She didn’t know him, but tracked him down and asked him if she could use it.

‘It’s so true to Monk,’ she says, ‘It talks about the silence of Monk, and the silence in music, the way we use our voices and also about the mental illness that affected Monk – he was bipolar, and the racism he faced. There are so many aspects in this text that I still feel are relevant today.

‘When it’s put together with Monk’s music, it’s overwhelming.’

And in the true jazz spirit, Monk’s music has been reinterpreted by the performers.

‘I think sometimes, people expect jazz in the traditional way, particularly music from Monk’s era, like bebop, and Monk’s music itself – it’s done with piano, drums, double bass and sax. This time we’re going to perform with piano, vibes, double bass, flute and two vocals, which means it’s a very unusual line-up, and we’re going to use lots of electronics too.

‘I hope Monk would be proud of us in terms of how we’ve interpreted it.’

The show also has a new element – a tribute another jazz legend, the singer Billie Holiday, featuring a performance of the song Strange Fruit, with its powerful depiction of lynchings in the deep south.

‘Monk adored her,’ explains Filomena. ‘Benni’s added a poem to Misterioso about Billie – I’m going to sing that as a blues. It’s about when a racist shouted something awful at her during a show. And it’s about her answering to this guy and making him shut up in the most beautiful way. ‘After that there’s going to be a solo piece by Cleveland singing Strange Fruit, last time he did it we got goose-bumps.

‘Monk was not really like some of the others talking about racism, but maybe it came from the way he played, and he didn’t care about the critics and he went on his own way.

‘At the time he wasn’t always appreciated by his contemporaries he was considered weird for the way he was playing. He was beyond the bebop players - he was something else, and he never compromised to change his sound to get more gigs.’

Portsmouth Guildhall

Thursday, November 16