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Miles Okazaki is given to obsessive projects. The guitarist, best known for his stellar work with Steve Coleman, says he often goes into long periods of study in between his own writing projects. If you didn’t know that before, he’s made it clear with his self-released, six-volume Work: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Monk, on which Okazaki interprets the entire 70-composition Monk songbook.
Given that 2017 was Monk’s centennial birthday, there’s been a wealth of tributes to the legendary musician. Pianist Frank Kimbrough will soon release a six-volume set of the entire Monk repertoire with a quartet. But Okazaki’s is a solo-guitar effort. Reinterpreting Monk’s work for the instrument presented one challenge. The other was finding a way to handle these familiar tunes in a way that doesn’t get tedious over nearly five hours.
“A lot of Monk’s music is in a similar tempo,” Okazaki explains. “If you’re going to do all these compositions, you have to find a way to not just do a whole bunch of medium swing, otherwise it’s going to be awful to listen to. I think Monk’s music has a built-in quality to it that is inviting you to take some risks.”
That he does, both from purely musical choices (putting a Brazilian flourish on “Bye-Ya”) and from a conceptual framework (Okazaki’s pulsing solo on “Monk’s Dream” suggests drifting in and out of consciousness). The album is a stunning accomplishment that only grows more impressive the closer you listen.
It was certainly a painstaking process. Okazaki recorded the songs alone in his Brooklyn apartment with two microphones and his 1978 Gibson Charlie Christian archtop guitar. You can hear picking sounds, Okazaki’s fingers sliding on the strings. He credits Liberty Ellman, who mixed and mastered the album (and is a trailblazing guitarist in his own right), for bringing warmth to the sound. “I just wanted it to sound like somebody’s on your couch in the living room giving a little house concert,” Okazaki says. “That’s the sound I remember from when I first started practicing these tunes — sitting in my parents’ house, on the couch, practicing Monk tunes.”
Okazaki is currently writing music for his next album. He’ll be taking some of Monk with him, noting that he studies composers to inform his own writing. He’ll also carry some of the lessons he learned about himself during the process. “It was very challenging physically just to get through this, like doing a marathon,” he says. “I think I’ve discovered something about endurance that I can use. It’s hard when you’re 43 years old to bring your technique to a new level. This was a way of pushing my technique on the instrument to a new level.” —John Frederick Moore
[caption id="attachment_14496" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Feature photo by John Rogers[/caption]