THELONIOUS MONK - "This is My Story, This is My Song" (from Straight, No Chaser)

When I read the name of the song on the CD in the store I'm not sure I really made the connection, but it hit me immediately, profoundly, once I heard it. This is a fairly free - as in "at the performer's discretion," not "free jazz" - rendition of a church hymn.

Perhaps there was a time, when I was young enough, that I liked, or at least didn't mind, going to church, but once (a) boredom, and (b) doubt set in, attending service was always unpleasant, at the very least. I was raised Methodist. I'm not sure whether that meant we sang more hymns than some others, or fewer, or about the same, but it seemed to me we spent a lot of time singing - plenty of old chestnuts including "Story." As I grew more and more interested in music, my aversion to hymns grew in kind - which I think is entirely reasonable, given that most people can't sing or keep time, and even worse, tend to mumble their way through the typical hymn. What I didn't realize at the time was that there were also some pretty good songs in there among the dreck, which makes it all the worse, the way they were treated.

"Story" sounds now, to me, as if it was one of the good ones. Or is that just nostalgia? At base it's simply a strong melody, all a good hymn really needs to be (especially if it's going to be performed by musical illiterates). Monk's rendition subverts the song I remember, though, in ways utterly in keeping with any of his more properly "jazz" performances - i.e. the time is jagged, and the dissonances ring loudly and clearly. And you know what? The song is more powerful because of it. This is the power that experimentalism of all kinds has, at least potentially: though most congregations would react to this with a raised eyebrow (though they can't sing they'd be able to tell something sounded "funny"), it's a performance that could genuinely inform and better their appreciation of the song.

And all this in only 1:42 of solo piano!

(This originally ran on NYLPM)