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Crepuscule with Nellie: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Ben Gray
Contributing Writer
bengray417@gmail.com

Thelonious Monk wrote "Crepuscule with Nellie" for his wife (the eponymous Nellie) when she was having surgery for a thyroid disorder in 1957. "Crepuscule" first appeared on a Monk album that same year, Monk’s Music. The CD re-issue of this album includes multiple takes of the tune; first, the more polished, finished-sounding version. Monk at the piano is joined here by Art Blakey on the drums, Wilbur Ware on bass, Gigi Gryce, Coleman Hawkins, and John Coltrane on saxophones, and Ray Copeland on trumpet. This version starts with a solo piano introduction from Monk before the drums and bass join Monk on this beautiful ballad. Monk lets his chords ring out underneath the melody and Wilbur Ware’s bowed bass under some of these phrases is just perfect. Blakey’s drums on this version of the tune are mostly understated brushed snare to provide the atmosphere. Around 1:20 or so, Monk plays a very catchy phrase from this melody that will become an important part of Jason Moran’s version (more on that below). At about 2:15, the horns join in and fill out the "Crepuscule" melody. Here, Monk plays the melody in unison with the horns, adding some piano fills in between phrases (and sometimes letting the silence in between phrases make a statement as well). Around 3:30, the phrase that Monk introduced around 1:20 on piano returns, this time with Monk and the horns playing in unison. This version of "Crepuscule" is just beautiful stuff, mostly written music with some room for improvisation as well.

Crepuscule With Nellie (takes 4 and 5) by Thelonious Monk on Grooveshark

Monk kept "Crepuscule with Nellie" in rotation well beyond its first appearance on Monk’s Music. The recently released Paris, 1969 includes a solo piano version of "Crepuscule," twelve years after its first appearance. This version is a fairly stripped-down affair, with Monk really focusing on the essence of the tune without much soloing or improvising outside of the written melody. The song starts much like the original version on Monk’s Music, but no drums or bass join in. As a result, Monk plays all of the bass parts and implies the rhythmic bits that Blakey’s drums added on Monk’s Music. Monk plays with space here, letting the full chords ring out, then starting to add some right hand runs around 1:40 or so. He ends the tune just after 2:00 with a right hand trill and cheers of "Bravo!" Twelve years after the tune’s first appearance, Monk continued to find interest in the melody. On Paris, 1969, he lets that melody make its case without feeling the need to add much in the way of improvisation except for some right hand runs toward the end of the tune.

Crepuscule With Nellie from Thelonious Monk on Myspace.

While there are many versions of "Crepuscule" by Monk, including some great versions from Criss-Cross, Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane and Live at Town Hall, among others, I’ll look at some of the many cover versions of this tune here.

First I’ll jump forward to 1993 and drummer T.S. Monk’s Changing of the Guard album. T.S. Monk is the son of Thelonious and Nellie Monk, and he is joined here by Scott Colley on bass, Ronnie Matthews on piano, Bobby Porcelli and Willie Williams on saxes, and Don Sickler on trumpet. This version starts out with a cymbal, then the horns play through the melody with Colley’s huge bass tone providing the foundation. Matthews’ piano then joins in, first with some runs, then some chord stabs. Monk’s drums play very much a background role here, mostly providing some accents in between phrases. Just after 2:30, Matthews’ piano moves to the front, the horns drop out, and Monk plays some brushed snare behind this, somewhat similar to the first half of the version of "Crepuscule" on Monk’s Music. At about 3:40, the horns return to play through the melody again; Monk’s drums and Matthews’ piano both move more into a background role again here. A fine, stately-sounding version of this tune from Thelonious’ son. It’s an interesting arrangement, with the horn-led sections bookending a piano trio in the middle part of this tune.

Crepuscule With Nellie by T.S. Monk on Grooveshark

The next version of "Crepuscule with Nellie" that I’ll look at is from Jason Moran. Moran included the tune on his 2010 album Ten (along with another Monk tune, "Thelonious"). This version includes Moran’s regular bandmates Tarus Mateen on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. Moran starts this version with a piece of the "Crepuscule" melody from the middle of the tune, setting up a nice vamp. At about 0:50, the band moves into a new section that includes a portion of Monk’s "Crepuscule" melody; it’s almost as if Moran has put Monk’s tune into a sampler, chopped and looped it, and is taking a fantastic piano solo on top of that. Mateen and Waits set up a very strong groove here… nice floating feel around 2:00 or so, and then at 2:15, the band gets into a bluesy vamp based on the "Crepuscule" melody and Mateen solos on top of this as Moran’s piano takes the low end. At about 3:20, Mateen’s bass solo comes to a close. The trio continues their vamp, here with Moran’s piano ornamenting the basic vamp and adding in fills. Great, great playing from all three members of the band here in a strong groove. At about 4:30, the band brings it way down and then returns to something more like Monk’s "Crepuscule" to finish the tune. They play through this and bring their version to a close over Waits’ drum roll; Moran plays the melody once more in a high register, echoing Monk’s ending on this tune. I’ll also mention here that Moran plays this tune in his live sets; it was included in a set at the Village Vanguard that was recorded by NPR, and another cool version is up on YouTube with a fascinating interview with Moran talking about the challenges of playing Monk.

Moving on from Moran’s version, another recent version of "Crepuscule" also featured Nasheet Waits’ drumming. This version is from Greg Lewis’ 2012 album Organ Monk: Uwo In the Black (an album devoted to Monk’s music), and is a duet between Lewis on organ and Waits on drums. This version starts with Lewis playing both the melody and adding the bass foundation as Waits’ drums skitter underneath. Lewis and Waits take this at a fairly slow and loose tempo in the opening of the tune here. The organ gives an interesting feel to some of Monk’s chords, very different from the piano; check out the big chord around 2:05-2:10 or so and again around 2:40 as Lewis gives this a somewhat demented feel toward the ending. Interesting version of the tune, perhaps not a definitive version of "Crepuscule," but very different from the many piano-led versions of the tune and well worth checking out.

Crepuscule With Nellie from Greg Lewis on Myspace.

Another version of "Crepuscule With Nellie" with a different lead instrument is a solo guitar version from Peter Bernstein. This is a live performance from the 2011 La Spezia Jazz Festival in Italy, where Bernstein was joined by Leonardo Corradi on organ and Nicola Angelucci on drums (though "Crepuscule was done solo; I’ll also mention here that Bernstein does a fantastic solo guitar version of "Crepuscule" on his 2013 Live at Small’s album) This starts off with a solo guitar introduction to "Crepuscule" by Bernstein, really digging into the tune here. At around 2:10, Bernstein lets a slightly dissonant chord ring out and the trio then moves into "I Mean You." "Crepuscule with Nellie" is a great vehicle for Bernstein’s contemplative solo guitar playing, really getting to the essence of the tune here.

Peter Bernstein Trio - Crepuscule with Nelie / I Mean You from Michael Papadopoulos on Vimeo.

Speaking of Bernstein’s Live at Small’s release, the next version of this tune I’ll look at here is from Spike Wilner, who is both the pianist on this version and the proprietor of Small’s Jazz Club. Wilner’s 2012 album La Tendresse features Dezron Douglas on bass and Joey Saylor on drums. Their version of "Crepuscule" starts with a solo piano introduction from Wilner. It’s a Monk-ish introduction, but Wilner is clearly not trying to copy Monk here, and instead brings his own style to the tune. At about 1:05 after a fantastic introduction to the tune, Douglas and Saylor join Wilner. They dig into this tune as a blues, opening up to a piano solo from Wilner around 2:10 over easy, swinging drums from Saylor and a walking bassline from Douglas. Wilner’s solo is excellent and completely original while staying true to Monk’s melody here. Nice stuff around 3:45 as the trio plays through the head of the tune again, somewhat loosely. They finish the head of the tune and bring this really great piano trio version of "Crepuscule" to a close.

Crepuscule With Nellie from Spike Wilner on Myspace.

This could go on, but it’s already turning into a long list. A quick perusal of allmusic.com, Grooveshark, Myspace, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, and YouTube will find many more versions of this tune, including lots available to stream online… all of Monk’s versions are great. There are also some really inventive versions from the Kronos Quartet, separate versions from Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, and Ellis Marsalis, versions from Joe Lovano, Paul Motian, Steve Lacy, SFJAZZ Collective, Jessica Williams, Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra, Marcus Roberts, Mark Turner, Fred Hersch … on and on and on. The versions included here aren’t meant to be encyclopedic, obviously, and aren’t even really meant to show all of the different directions that this song has gone since its first appearance over fifty years ago on Monk’s Music. It’s served as a vehicle for piano many times over, but also for organ, guitar, sax, strings, and has been played as a ballad and also as a hard-grooving tune. Where to next? Keep listening.

Ben Gray is a listener with a lot of ideas about this music around in his head.