Thelonious Monk is one of the most iconic musicians in jazz history. His recordings and compositions are characterized by noticeably angular rhythms, chords, and melodies that highlight his unique approach to jazz vocabulary. Perhaps his most famous composition - 'Round Midnight - has become an absolute must-know jazz standard. Monk's personal piano style is on full display in his solo piano recording of this piece and it's ripe with some of the most stock jazz piano structures - things like chord shells, arpeggios, and stride playing. Let's take a look at a transcription of this classic tune featured in our 'Round Midnight lesson.
Chord shells are a left hand harmonic device that is built by playing (1) the root of the chord and (2) another chord tone (usually the 3rd or 7th of the chord). The key to playing chord shells is that the root and some other notes (but not the entire chord) are included. So a C minor 7th chord shell could be spelled as: C-Bb, C-Eb, C-Eb-Bb, C-G-Bb, or even something as simple as C-G.
Monk uses chord shells extensively in his solo recording of 'Round Midnight. In fact, Monk plays almost nothing other than chord shells and stride patterns in his left hand throughout the recording. Check out this excerpt showing the exact notes Monk is using in his left hand.
Notice the use of chord shells for 4 of the 6 chords in these measures - simple root-5th-7th, root-7th, and root-3rd-7th structures.
Monk embellishes his melody with repeated and constant fills and embellishments, and so many of these melodic inventions are built on arpeggios - outlining the individual notes of the chord in ascending and descending directions with various rhythms. Again, let's look at measure 4 which features two "ii - Vs" separated by a half step.
While the left hand features the use of chord shells, the right hand embellishes the melody by simply outlining the chord tones, ascending, over the minor 7th chords and then resolving down when arriving on the dominant 7th chord. For example, on B minor 7, Monk's right hand plays A (the 7th), D (3rd), F# (5th), A (7th), then (on the E7 chord) G# (3rd) and E (root). Monk plays the exact same figure down a half-step over the Bb minor 7th chord and the Eb7.
Stride is a technique in which the pianist's left hand plays the root on beat 1 and the chord on beat 2. The term "stride" refers to the movement of the pianist's left hand striding from the low register of the piano to the mid-register, back and forth in this manner. Many people don't realize that Monk was a masterful stride pianist.
Monk uses this stride technique predominantly on the bridge. Notice at the start of the bridge (measure 17) in the left hand how Monk plays the root of the chord on beat 1, followed by the chord itself on beat 2. On beat 3, when the chord changes to F7, he continues in the same manner, and again in measure 18 for the Bb7 chord.
In true Monk style when playing the Bb7 chord, Monk uses his signature dissonance - the #11 sound - and voices the Bb7(#11) chord in a way that highlights, not conceals, the tension-filled sound. After playing the root (Bb), Monk voices the chord using Ab (7th), D (3rd), and E (#11) and puts the E at the very top of the voicing, ensuring that it stands out. This is a signature Monk-ism. For the complete transcription and more signature Monk devices, check out the complete "Standards by the Dozen" lesson on 'Round Midnight.