Where It Starts: A conversation with Miles Okazaki about Thelonious Monk
Miles Okazaki is among the greatest living improvisers on the guitar. An assistant professor of jazz guitar at the University of Michigan, he has his own deep and well-conceived ideas about rhythm, harmony, and melody. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down with Okazaki to discuss his latest release, a massive six-volume solo-guitar project entitled Work in which he recorded every song by Thelonious Monk -- 70 in total -- with no effects, overdubs, key or time changes.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Monk in American music. His approach to harmony, melody, and especially rhythm has influenced virtually every musician who has followed him. It was a privilege to be able to get into the weeds with Okazaki on the topic of Monk’s music.
Our conversation is below, with some edits for flow.
Q: You mentioned in your liner notes to Work that the music of Monk “resonated with me on such a deep level that it single-handedly sent me down the musical path that I continue to follow.” Could you address the specific things about the music that really struck you when you first heard Monk?
A: It’s not any deep concepts or anything. Sometimes it’s just like one sound or one chord. Have you ever been to a concert or listened to a record where you don’t really remember everything, but you remember just one moment, and that stuck with you? That happens to me, and I had stuff like that with Monk, but it was really strong. And it was stuff that he would do rhythmically especially [sings the melody to "Rhythm-a-ning"] when he’d do this type of turning around stuff. And I’d be like, “Oh, shit!” I love that feeling of being confused, and he was so masterful at that. Just rotating your whole consciousness around about what’s going on. So that’s probably the most basic thing, because I think, as an early teenager, that was what I could understand the most. I think I didn’t really get a lot of the harmonic stuff. I didn’t really understand how important the details of the voicings are, how specific they are. He has his own system of harmony. It’s not changes. When you hear a tune like “Crepuscule With Nellie,” that’s not chord changes. That’s like an extremely detailed through-composed thing. You can barely even move any part of it around.
Q: And on your recording, isn’t that one that you just played straight through?
A: I just played it straight through, yeah.
Q: So, as a young player you can hear that something is going on with the rhythm …
A: Yeah, you hear stuff like “Evidence,” “Straight, No Chaser," you know how the phrase kind of keeps moving around? I love those tunes; they’re well-known tunes. Even something like the ending of “Blue Monk.” It’s very simple but the phrase just shifts over, you know?
Q: Did you have the experience as a young player of messing up those rhythms a lot? Because I did.
A: Oh yeah. I mean I mess them up still. Some of them are deceptively difficult.
Q: You referenced a number of different musicians in your liner notes. Out of all of those people who you mentioned, who were some of the most critical as far as your musical development goes?
A: Again, it’s kind of like small things. You know, people you meet in your formative years have a lot of effect. But the one that really got me interested in trying to get a nice feel on the guitar was Emily Remler. I went to a workshop in Port Townsend [Washington] where I grew up and she came there. She was there for a week so I got to spend a week taking lessons with her. It was right before she died. I didn’t know that you could make the guitar feel that way. She had a super relaxed, organic swing feel. And she was into players who played like that. Wes Montgomery mostly. That was when I was maybe 14, 15, something like that. The late '80s. I wouldn’t say she was a super rhythmically tricky player or anything, but it’s about feel. She got me interested in feel and expressing emotion. I remember her saying stuff like, “These guys are always giving me a hard time, saying women are too emotional. Isn’t that the whole thing we’re trying to do here?” And technically she was amazing. Really amazing. So early on, in terms of actual living people, not people on records, she was a big one.
And then there were local people. People you don’t know. My guitar teacher, Mike Townsend was a hipster with his finger on all the good records from all different types of music. He was like, “Oh, you want to check out some African music? You gotta get this. Some Cuban music, get this. Stuff from India, get this guy.” He studied ethnomusicology in school and isn't strictly a jazz player but he knew the good jazz records. He was like, “OK, you’re gonna check out Kind of Blue and some Art Blakey and Monk, but you also gotta check out Sun Ra, and you should check out Ornette Coleman.” So I was lucky to know some hip people like that. And then there was a Berklee bebopper that lived around where I grew up named Chuck Easton and he was just a straight bebop guy. He’s still there. He’s killing. He’d play “Confirmation,” “Moose the Mooche,” stuff like that.
Q: When did you start gigging?
A: Well, I don’t know if you’d call it gigging, but I started playing solo guitar in an Italian restaurant every week or sometimes twice a week when I was 13. I’d play for tips and a meal. My mom would come and pick me up at 10 or 11 o’clock. I couldn’t drive, obviously. Lanza’s. It’s still there. So, a lot of time put in on solo guitar playing. I’d spend a lot of time looking at people and seeing what they would respond to. How to really make a song sound like something. I didn’t ever play arrangements. I just played the tunes.
Q: So what were some of those early tunes that you played?
A: Oh, just standard stuff like “NIght and Day,” “All the Things You Are,” a lot of Brazilian tunes because they sound good solo. All the Jobim tunes.
Q: How were you learning those tunes?
A: Off of records and sometimes off of charts. I couldn’t really read. I could kind of read but it was so much work.
Q: Could you talk about your approach to solo guitar playing? I notice that you use a lot of single note lines on this record.
A: Well, Steve Lacy does solo Monk records. I love those records that he did. He seems to do OK with his monophonic instrument. If you can make a good melody, that’s fine. You would listen to somebody singing a capella. You would listen to Sonny Rollins play a cadenza. Not that this is on that level, but still, it’s something you can aim for. I guess since I never had anybody teach me what was the right way I just assumed that you just play whatever you feel like playing and try to make it sound like something. Either melodically be good or rhythmically be good, you know? And nowadays it’s much more about rhythm. A single line can project rhythm just fine, and that’s enough for people to grab on to. So saying, “Hey, where are your bass notes? Where are your chords?” is just an assumption of what that format should be. You don’t say to Steve Lacy, “Hey, man, where are your bass notes?” I figure with this stuff, the melody and the rhythmic expression of that melody are the main things and everything else is just like gravy. You can put it on there if you want. I want the throughline to be strong enough to carry it no matter what.
Q: Yeah, well, it’s been really inspirational. I had a way that I learned to play chord-melody guitar, which started with determining if the song was even feasible as a solo guitar piece, and if you’re going to play every Monk tune, you can’t really ask that question.
A: There’s a lot of them that are definitely not feasible in terms of some sort of back and forth between the melody and the chords, or both simultaneously. Any of those tunes with a lot of notes, like "Skippy" or "Who Knows," or "Four in One." You can’t do some sort of chord melody. It’s not that type of tune.
I gravitate toward lower stuff, but it all depends on what’s called for. For a solo album, the lower range is going to have more weight to it. If I play “Skippy” up high on the instrument … there’s a lot of those melodies where it’s like, “Where should I play it? Which octave?” And that’s one that I thought about, like, which octave should “Skippy” be in? It gets pretty low. It’s going down to B-flat and stuff like that. But, it has to be by itself because you can’t play the chords while you’re playing that melody, so if it’s up high it’s just going to sound empty.
Q: Who is your intended audience for this music?
A: Nobody! I go through these study cycles. On my previous study cycle, I wrote that book, Fundamentals of Guitar. I had other study cycles before that; I just didn’t document anything. But I decided when I was writing this book that it’s good to document stuff. Because what would happen is that I would get to a certain point in a study cycle and then go off and do gigs and whatever and then come back and be like, “Where was I?” It’s not organized. I really needed to make faster progress. So I decided to document it, and I wrote that book. I was looking at the guitar. Then a few years later I came back into the cycle and said, “I’m gonna do the Monk, get into this Monk on a new level.” And how could I be held accountable to myself? I could just record it. It’s just a record of that study. It’s really just for me.
Q: So when you initially had the idea, did you think you would release it?
A: No. I was thinking I would just have it. Maybe just to have ideas for approaches. The way I was doing it, I’d really get into a tune. I’d dive into a tune and practice it to a point where I got to some new thing, and then record it. Now, a week later I probably wouldn’t be able to do that thing anymore but at least I would have it on the recording so I could come back and be like, “OK, this is a thing I figured out about playing certain types of changes.” Or maybe a certain type of picking I had to do to get something to work or a certain type of switching back and forth between fingers, a certain type of counterpoint. All those things had different technical problems. I didn’t really talk about that too much in the liner notes but there were a lot of technical issues. This whole thing was really a technical study, but a technical study in the sense that you have to find musical solutions. Not just technical solutions. You can just execute the tunes but then …
Q: Then you haven’t actually solved the problem of how to play Monk’s music.
A: Yeah. You have to get to the point where the tune works. It functions, you’ve made the translation. People keep saying “arrangement.” There’s no arrangement here, there’s just translation. I didn’t change the music. I didn’t change the harmonies, I didn’t change the melodies, I didn’t change the forms, I didn’t change the time signatures, none of that. So it’s more like translation and then rhythmic variation. Rhythmic variation is where I’m taking liberties to make it not just sound like a bookish kind of thing.
Q: I was wondering if you could talk about the concept of patience in music? It must have taken a lot of patience to stay on course with this project.
A: I don’t think I have much patience. I think it’s more about endurance and persistence, which are a little bit different in my mind than patience. Patience is about waiting, not trying to force something to happen before it should happen. That’s not quite my approach to this. It’s more like endurance. I know at a certain point, something is acceptable, but that’s not really where I want to stop. I want to stop at the point where it’s past the threshold. There’s a threshold where you say, “I can’t really do this anymore,” and then you go a little farther. That’s how you improve. You have to find the threshold and then you have to push beyond it, and so I try to find that point for every tune and do that. And that’s a question of endurance. There’s no motivation involved in patience. Endurance is more like, a certain thing has to happen, and I’m going to be with this thing as long as it takes for that condition to be met. That’s the way it feels to me. It feels like, "OK, we’ve been doing this tune for a few days now, it was good enough two days ago, but I know in my mind that there’s some point I want to reach and I just have to keep going until I reach that point." It’s not clear what that point is in terms of how much time it’s going to take.
Q: Was there a particular tune that was really difficult?
A: "Pannonica." That one was really hard. It’s only one chorus but I did it all with natural harmonics. Natural harmonics are only certain notes and then the other notes you have to fret. They’re all mixed together. "Skippy" was really hard, just to keep the form and keep all the changes going, playing totally monophonic. "‘Round Midnight" -- really hard to come up with something interesting to do on that. I used the Bud Powell version as my reference. I learned that whole solo cold and then used that as a reference. "Epistrophy" is hard. It has two parts. "Little Rootie Tootie" was hard because it has this crazy chord in it that I was trying to figure out how to play. Some of the hardest ones were the more conventional ones. The ones that are played a lot, like "Evidence," "Bemsha Swing," "Monk’s Dream." It’s hard to come up with stuff that feels fresh.
Q: What surprised you most about how well Work has been received?
A: It’s kind of weird. Maybe halfway through I did get the idea that I would release it as a project. A sort of "in-between" project. I’m on Pi records, so I did the Trickster record, and I’m going to do the next record, whatever that’s going to be, but there’s two or three years in between the records because their cycle is long. So I felt like I had to do something to keep my momentum going. And my cycle already exists, which is study, compose, rehearse, record, perform. And it’s a long cycle; it’s like three or four years. So I figured I’d just make the study thing into another album, one that doesn’t fit into the form of my other stuff, which is all originals, you know? So I put it out. It’s a little risky because you could have some serious haters. But people seem to like it. I think it’s not hard to like a Monk project. Although it is easy to hate if the performer doesn't pay respect to the music on some level.
Q: Do you think of this project as a major achievement, or as just the next thing in your study cycle?
A: I don’t think of it as a major achievement. I think of it as due diligence. Like, say you’re a classical violinist. How many classical violinists have gone through the process of recording the Bach Sonatas and Partitas? Dozens, hundreds maybe, I don’t know. Definitely hundreds or thousands have all worked on them and learned all of them, for sure. Almost every student of that instrument. Most of the major violinists have recorded them. It’s a huge amount of material. There’s six of them, and each one has several movements. And they’re super hard. Even though they were written hundreds of years ago, they’re still the peak of technique for a violinist. So, that’s due diligence.
Now, obviously the Monk pieces weren’t written for guitar, but if you were to think to yourself, “What’s a mountain that I can climb to feel, personally, that I’ve put in my time for a certain composer in this tradition of African-American music?” I would say Monk is one of them. So no, it’s not really a big deal. It’s just, in the context of what people generally do, why not say, “Maybe we could do more to feel connected to these great works.” They are a crucial piece of history. Are we just going to sort of do Shakespeare? Just kind of get the gist of it? Say whatever words we want? No. Actors learn the exact words, they don’t just paraphrase it. I try to be as detailed as I can. So, the due diligence is saying, if I’m going to engage with this material, what is the way that I can contribute something to the body of recorded material that’s out there. There’s tons of Monk recordings, way too many. My goal is just to try to be transparent. I’m using material from the song and I’m moving it around and seeing what I can do, but I’m not putting my thing in there so much. I mean, I have my way of playing and I can’t help but put that flavor on to it, but the material is the guiding principle, not my style.
Q: So what are you going to do next?
A: I’m writing music for the next record. I’m writing the drum parts now. I always start with the drum parts. Grooves, things like that. That’s kind of where it starts for me.
Alex Anest is an Ann Arbor-based guitarist. He spends his time playing music with friends and teaching other people to do the same. You can find more of his writing at anestmusic.com.
Miles Okazaki performs the music of Thelonious Monk at 3 pm on Sunday, March 10, at the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown location. Free. Okazai and his band Trickster perform Wednesday, April 17 at Kerrytown Concert House.