Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop Instructional and Historical DVDs Books and Materials

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Music of Thelonious Monk

Duck Baker is one of the most highly regarded fingerstyle guitarists of his generation. He is unique among jazz guitarists in that his repertoire spans the entire history of the music from ragtime through swing to modern masters like Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols to free improvisation. Baker’s devotion to American music also encompasses more traditional forms like blues, gospel, and Appalachian music and its Scots-Irish ancestry. This catholicism has been likened to Europeans who perform the classical repertoire from renaissance through to modern music.

Duck was born Richard R. Baker IV in 1949 and grew up in Richmond, Virginia. He passed his teenage years playing in rock and blues bands before becoming interested in acoustic blues. Local ragtime pianist Buck Evans was a major influence on Baker’s evolution. By the time he moved to San Francisco in the early seventies, he was performing the wide range of material heard on his first record for the Kicking Mule label, “There’s Something for Everyone in America”. In addition to developing his solo style, Baker joined a bluegrass band and immersed himself in the local swing jazz scene, forming a duo with guitarist Thom Keats and performing with such Bay Area luminaries as Burt Bales and Robin Hodes. Baker remains active in this music, leading a trio with guitarist Bob Wilson and fiddler Tony Marcus.

Duck’s most ambitious record, “Spinning Song”, which is devoted to the music of Herbie Nichols, got rave reviews in Jazz Times, Cadence, Coda, and the New York Times, and helped establish Baker as an important voice in the world of fingerstyle jazz guitar. Various critics named “Spinning Song” among the best jazz records of 1997 in Cadence and Coda magazines, and it placed high on the Cadence reader’s poll of that year. Acoustic Guitar magazine dubbed it “one of the best guitar records ever recorded – by anybody.”

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    Music of Thelonious Monk

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    Thelonious Sphere Monk was a towering figure in the story of modern jazz. He was also one of the great originals in all of jazz history, with a unique piano style perfectly suited to his visionary approach to composition and improvisation. He is even better remembered as the composer of some of the classics of jazz: 'Round About Midnight and Blue Monk. For years regarded as a far-out eccentric, Monk has now taken his rightful place in the pantheon of jazz greats.

    Monk's music is a challenge on any instrument, and particularly for fingerstyle guitar. Duck Baker draws on his experience performing and arranging many jazz styles, from ragtime to free jazz, in attempting to capture Monk's bittersweet harmonic feeling on the six strings of the guitar. Duck teaches arrangements of Blue Monk, Lulu's Back in Town, 'Round About Midnight and Light Blue. As a bonus, rare footage of Monk performing the first three tunes is included from a 1966 concert with his great quartet featuring Charlie Rouse.

    Duck Baker's ability to clearly explain and demonstrate his arrangements in an engaging fashion has been noted by both critics and students of his instructional videos, as have his exceptional talents as a guitarist and arranger. The Music of Thelonious Monk Arranged for Fingerstyle Guitar is a unique DVD lesson that only Duck Baker could have put together.

    92 minutes - Level 3/4 - Detailed tab/music PDF file on the DVD

    Review: Few jazz composers have created a body of work as imaginative and offbeat as that of Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-1982). A pianist whose technique was as unorthodox as his writing, Monk viewed melodies, chords, and rhythms as ambiguous symbols to be twisted, bent, and reinvented into something new and strangely beautiful. Unlike the music of some of his bebop contemporaries, which is layered with busy, rapid-fire modal expressions, Monk's melodies and solos are sparse and primitive, yet they have a deep sense of musical logic and artistry that transcends the bebop label and appeals to musicians and listeners of almost every ilk. 

    The implied simplicity of Monk's music makes it especially appealing to fingerstyle guitarists, yet anyone who's tried unraveling his dissonant voicings and jaunty melodies will tell you that it's not as easy as it sounds. A new video from Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop offers a clear and detailed lesson in playing three classic Monk compositions ("'Round About Midnight," "Blue Monk," and "Light Blue") and a distinctive Monk interpretation ("Lulu's Back in Town") as guitar solos.

    Watching Monk is as much fun as listening to him, and viewers are treated to excerpts of a 1966 performance filmed in Oslo, Norway, featuring Monk at the piano with Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, Larry Gales on bass, and Ben Riley on drums... It is fascinating and valuable to watch Monk play the piece before delving into Baker's arrangement.

    Naturally, there is a difference between the rhythmic feel of what Baker is doing and the Monk performances. With Gales and Riley providing a swinging, rock-solid foundation, Monk is free to play as far off the beat as he wants, where Baker's rhythm tends to swing with more of a concise, ragtime feel. Baker's success in arranging these tunes lies more in how he captures the chromatic feel, moving bass, and dissonant sound of Monk's music in a way that makes perfect sense on the guitar.

    Not that everything Baker lays out for the viewer is easy to play; some of the fingerings in "Light Blue" are a stretch even for accomplished players. Yet in most cases he offers suggestions for less-strenuous alternate fingerings in his neighborly, off-the-cuff manner. As with most of Grossman's Guitar Workshop videos, split-screen camera work makes it easy to see what's going on with both hands at once. 

    Baker's beautiful rendering of "'Round About Midnight," perhaps the most frequently recorded of Monk's compositions, is a great study in the way Monk structured chords. As Baker points out, this tune actually has a relatively normal chord pattern, yet Monk managed to make all the chords slightly dissonant to give it the dark, brooding feel that is so appealing. Any fingerstyle guitarist would do well to add this arrangement to his or her repertoire.

    Near the end of the video, Baker emphasizes the importance of listening to the many recordings Monk made throughout his career. "There's so much going on in his music that'll never get into a transcription, particularly a fake book," Baker says. "I really don't feel like I've done more than scratch the surface of what this man has done musically. Indeed, to do more than that would be a lifetime study on any instrument." - Acoustic Guitar



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