The compositions of Thelonious Monk often get labeled “quirky” by critics. And they certainly are that. But Monk’s music is also devilishly difficult. Start with the basic 12-bar blues “Blue Monk” and enjoy the train wreck that ensues when less experienced players encounter the beat displacements of the last two bars. His truly notorious pieces like “Brilliant Corners” and “Crespecule with Nellie” almost never get performed for the simple reason that few of us understand how to actually play them! But when played correctly,Β the beauty of his genius emerges.

And that leads me to “Evidence,” a fiendish head based on the show tune “Just You, Just Me.” The melody is simply a series of “hits” that land in odd places. It’s usually performed with the rhythm section swinging through the changes while the piano/horns make the punches. I’ve also heard it performed with the whole band playing just the hits during the head (no walking bass line or ride patterns). Either way, it’s a challenge. Behold the evil of its simplicity:


Two approaches to learning “Evidence.” One, you just count and read. Simple. Unfortunately, I don’t think this will translate into anything terribly musical. A better tactic is to absorb the sound of the 8 bar phrase and play it by ear (with your strong internal pulse to guide you). I suspect this is how Monk approached all of his music. It’s important to distinguish note durations too. Most are short but those in measures 4 and 6 are held longer. This will help ground the time.

In thinking about all this, I setup a MIDI practice loop of the head. It’s a fun way to practice both playing it correctly and soloing against it. What I soon realized after using only the melody as background (no bass line, no drums, no click), is that the rhythmic pattern of his melody functions as a backbeat,Β quirky as that sounds. If you would like the loop for your own torments, email me (contact form above) and I’ll send it over.

I leave you with the piece performed by one of the great modern pianists, Fred Hersch. Notice how he starts adding his own displacements during the later A sections. His 1998 masterpiece “Fred Hersch — Plays the Music of Thelonious Monk” is a must-have CD.