Nov. 24 2010 12:00 AM

Shy pianist takes spotlight for tribute to Thelonious Monk




Pianist Rick Roe is the quietest of Michigan State University’s Professors of Jazz, but there’s one button that sends him into orbit: Just mention the bearded, fez-wearing, piano-bending, singular genius of modern American music, Thelonious Monk.

Roe was in his teens when he first dug Monk’s music.

“It was total acupuncture,” Roe said. “I felt it all up in my back and all around my body. He played certain things and I went, ‘Ow, it’s so damn good! You just cracked my back!’”

Sunday, after a lifetime of studying Monk and creatively channeling him on the bandstand, Roe will finally get an outlet proportional to his devotion.

The premiere of his new tribute to Monk, a four-part suite, will anchor a concert by the Professors of Jazz at the Creole Gallery.

It’s the first of a series concerts at the Creole, showcasing music written by each of the professors.

“I didn’t see this coming,” Roe said. “You couldn’t have asked me to do something more fun for me.”

The series was commissioned by the Lansing schools and MSU’s Jazz Studies chief, Rodney Whitaker, and funded by the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs.

The professors will preview each Creole gig at a Lansing school and answer questions from students.

It’s a big project for the professors, and a dream gig for Roe: “If there’s any cat who I could play his music the rest of my life and never get sick of it, he would be number one.”

To the unaccustomed ear, Monk’s blend of old-timey and modern sounds — the dissonant chords, sudden plinks, odd silences and skittering arpeggios — conjures up Fats Waller — with his right arm replaced by a lobster.

“He’s got the stride sound, coming out of ragtime, but then into crazy bop, but he’s not a bop pianist,” Roe said. “They had to put Monk in his own category. Nobody played lines and ideas like him.”

Even for Roe, Monk was an acquired taste. As a kid, he found the sugary density of Oscar Peterson more impressive. “I didn’t think the cat could play,” Roe said.

But when Roe reached his late teens, a friend urged him to try again. This time, it clicked for good.

“I don’t want to get over it,” Roe said. “I can’t.”

To balance cool study with hot impulse, he follows the advice of bebop sax pioneer Charlie Parker.

“What I like to do is learn all I can about it, then forget about it, and just play,” he said.

Monk’s music was often complex, but he made his horn players learn it by ear, often in a last-minute panic before a gig or recording session, only showing them the written tune as a last resort.

Roe did the same when the Professors previewed two parts of his Monk suite at Pattengill Middle School last week.

The Professors’ tenor man, Diego Rivera, came through just like Monk’s longtime stalwart tenor player, Charlie Rouse.

“He learned ‘em in five minutes, on stage, before we played them,” Roe said. “That’s some great musicianship.”

It’s a fool’s errand to capture Monk’s music in words, but listen to classic tunes like “’Round Midnight” or “Pannonica” and it’s clear that his appeal begins with melody.

The melodic framework of Monk’s tunes are plenty bendy, but strong as steel and cantilevered so crazy high, with bits sticking out all over the cityscape, that a horn player doesn’t dare let go.

“He wanted to make sure the musicians were dealing with the melody, not just playing over the chord changes,” Roe said.

“He favored whole tone scales, alteredchords, and superimposing harmonies over each other so you end up with these really consistent dissonances that he liked.”

Suddenly, he broke off.

“The more I talk, the more I don’t like hearing myself talk!” he said. “It’s too much talk, analyzing and breaking down the music.”

That leaves the psychological side of Roe’s lifelong romance with Monk.

“It’s funny,” he said. “I end up looking at myself and going, ‘Gee, is this me, or does it really matter, as long as it ends up being enjoyable to people?’” Make no mistake: Roe has his own lyrical, incisive style on piano, and he’s deeply engaged with many other jazz greats, from bebop saxman Charlie Parker to post-bop piano innovators like Herbie Hancock.

But Monk is never far from the surface.

What is Roe supposed to do — ditch the love of his life in a quixotic quest for self?

“The older I get, the less concerned I am about it,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get so much from the different periods of jazz all my life. In the process, I know I’m in there somewhere.”

MSU Professors of Jazz

p.m. Sunday, Nov. 28 Creole Gallery 218 Turner St., Lansing $25 Tickets
available at and at Elderly Instruments and Archive