Tuesday, Oct. 10, is the centenary of the birth of Thelonious Monk, the singular jazz pianist and composer whose influence has only grown since his 1982 death. It is also the birthday of Vernon Duke (1903-69), the Russian-born composer who, immigrating to the United States, reinvented himself as a writer of sophisticated, elegant Broadway and popular songs. Among Duke’s best-known numbers is “April in Paris,” written for a 1932 revue — and a favorite standard of Monk, who turned the song into a kind of musical pied-à-terre.
“April in Paris” has an exceptionally efficient melody, pervaded by a single motive: a lightly-dissonant suspension, reiterated three times, dragging against the beat, leaping to a stronger, accented dissonance that resolves up. All those features — the pointed dissonances, the heavy-landing syncopations, the motivic saturation — marked Monk’s compositions, too: Strip away its romantic sheen, and “April in Paris” becomes a remarkably Monk-like tune.
Monk’s interpretations further deconstructed the song toward his own sensibilities. For a 1947 Blue Note session, his first recordings as a leader, Monk turned “April in Paris” into parabolic display; the opening triplet’s harmonic instability butterflied into arpeggios tumbling up the keyboard, the bridge punctuated by downward-cascading scales reminiscent of Harlem stride piano style.
A decade later, Monk revisited the tune on his solo album “Thelonious Himself,” slowing it down, encrusting it with thick chords, retaining runs and chromatic countermelodies from earlier performance, but relegating them to the margins — before, in the second chorus, dropping into a fully realized but understated stride. In early 1960s performances, Monk would sometimes abbreviate this “April in Paris” into a frame for his own music: In one concert, recorded in England in 1961, a soft, delicate chorus of the song sidles up to Monk’s and Denzil Best’s “Bemsha Swing” like a long-lost cousin.
Monk offered another “April in Paris” on his 1964 album “Monk,” in a quartet setting featuring saxophonist Charlie Rouse. Again, it begins with a piano solo, synthesizing Monk’s history with the song, recognizable runs and re-harmonizations collected and catalogued (remaining consistent across different takes, and in subsequent live performances). When the other players enter, the music turns relaxed and smooth, at least by Monk’s standards. It’s as if, having finally fixed his own conception, Monk is content to let the group offer other opinions.
After that, “April in Paris” seems to have dropped out of Monk’s repertoire — further hint that his interpretation had reached some goal. That, too, set Monk apart. One often feels that, for Monk, improvisation was a process of purification: a quest for a song’s ideal form. Monk cut his own facets into “April in Paris” until it gleamed like a mirror.