The Rare “Shuffle Boil”: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Thelonious Monk is one of the most original pianists to have ever touched the keys. He was capable of making a song his own through his unique approach to the piano. His own compositions are probably the most-covered tunes in all of jazz, with dozens of “Straight, No Chaser” and “’Round Midnight” covers out there (not that there is a shortage of, say, “Bemsha Swing” or “Misterioso,” to name a few more). Still, it is a great surprise to find that the less commonly played Monk tunes are no less great than his most covered songs. “Shuffle-Boil” is a Monk tune that is not commonly covered (and was rarely played by Monk himself), but has given rise to some inspired versions since it first appeared in a session led by Gigi Gryce in 1955, released on the album Nica’s Tempo.

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In this Gigi Gryce session, Monk is at the piano along with Art Blakey on drums, Percy Heath on bass, and Gryce on sax. The tune starts with the characteristically Monk bassline, before the whole band comes in to state the theme. The drums and sax drop out for the bass and piano to play the bassline here. After moving through the head, Gryce takes a very, very strong sax solo starting about a minute in. Monk’s comping here is more “traditional” than what it would become somewhat later in his career (Miles Davis somewhat famously objected to Monk’s comping and asked him to lay out during his trumpet solos). In his later playing, Monk seems to play behind the soloists more on his angular melodies than on the chords underpinning the tune. Here, he seems to be more content to add a harmonic cushion to Gryce’s solo (real musicians, feel free to correct me here or to provide counterexamples). After Gryce’s solo, Monk takes a solo starting around 1:45. Monk’s genius is in keeping his solos so melodic and very strongly relating to the song that he is currently playing; he has his favorite licks, but even those are in the service of the overall structure of his solo. A fairly sparse Monk solo, recorded with a lot of reverb that is somewhat distracting in places, almost sounding electronically-treated. Around 3:30 there are some open spaces for Blakey’s drum fills, always welcome. The song’s head comes back around 4:15 and continues until the song’s end, again with the bassline played solo by Percy Heath. This is just another incredible bit of work from Monk… the biggest surprise for me was his comping behind Gryce’s sax solo. It is definitely Monk, but very different from the way that he comped behind Charlie Rouse later in his career.

“Shuffle Boil” next appears on Monk’s 1964 album It’s Monk’s Time with Butch Warren on bass, Charlie Rouse on sax, and Ben Riley on drums. The tune again opens with the unaccompanied bassline before the whole band comes in. It’s interesting to compare the bass tones of Percy Heath and Butch Warren here (and to compare the reverb-heavy recording on the Gryce album with the dry recording on It’s Monk’s Time). In the ten years since Nica’s Tempo, “Shuffle-Boil” has gotten harsher-sounding:

I miss the way the drums dropped out for the bass and piano in the Gryce-led version of this tune, an effect I really liked. When Rouse’s sax first plays the theme, I can’t say I’m crazy about the harsh tone he gets. Warren’s walking bassline with Riley’s drums is perfect, though… notably Monk doesn’t comp at all behind Rouse as he takes his solo here. Fine sax solo, and thankfully Rouse doesn’t reach for that harsh tone he used initially. Monk entirely sits out Rouse’s solo, then starts his own solo around 2:30 after a bit of an awkward ending from Rouse. (I don’t mean to be so harsh on Charlie Rouse – he plays great! This isn’t my favorite performance of his and that harsh tone, whether it was his idea or Monk’s, doesn’t do much for my ears.) Around 3:00, Monk plays some stride-influenced piano that shows up in some later versions of the tune that I’ll mention below. As in the Gryce version of the song, this ends with the bass taking the bassline solo.

The next version I’ll mention is from Jessica Williams’ Momentum, released in 1994 with Jeff Johnson on bass and Dick Berk on drums. This version also starts with the bassline, but here the bass and piano play in unison to open the tune. The arrangement is similar to the one that shows up on It’s Monk’s Time (though without a sax here to augment the head). Williams’ solo starts with a quote from “Bemsha Swing,” then moves into some inspired, exciting playing – clearly influenced by what Monk did before her, but also clearly an original voice. Williams is not shy about really hitting those lower notes hard; this whole solo works really well here. Around 3:00, we move into a bass solo while Williams provides some descending piano lines, then moves into some Monk-ish (best term I can come up with – see my comments above) comping around 3:30. Some great bass licks around 4:20 towards the end of the bass solo, then some spaces for drum fills, as in the earlier versions of “Shuffle Boil.” Williams sounds so, so good in here, confident and the whole thing just sounds great, very well-recorded. This group hasn’t made any huge changes to the song’s arrangement or particularly updated things, but everyone is playing at a very high level. A great version of this tune.

Like Jessica Williams, Kenny Barron is a fairly prolific player of Monk (check out his work with Sphere), including some rarely-covered tunes like “Shuffle-Boil.” In 2010, the Kenny Barron trio featuring Johnathan Blake on drums and Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass opened their set at the Kennedy Center with “Shuffle-Boil,” as recorded by WBGO. This version starts out subtly different from the versions above, with Barron’s piano starting the tune rather than the bass. Blake’s drumming in the opening is great (and really, Blake’s drumming throughout is great). About a minute into the song, Barron takes a casually virtuosic piano solo. Around 2:30, the solo really takes off with some fast right hand runs over a left hand bass part. He hits on a chord he really likes around 3:00 and the solo doesn’t lose any steam until it ends around 4:20, leading to a bass solo over subtle piano comping and Johnathan Blake’s drums. Kiyoshi Kitagawa takes a very strong, grooving bass solo here. Around 5:15 there is a great interaction between Barron’s piano backing and Kitagawa’s bassline…The bass solo ends around 6:20 and we move into the section for Blake’s drum fills. Very nice stuff here. The theme returns around 8:15 until the song finishes. A small but notable difference in this arrangement is that Barron’s piano takes the theme rather than the bass, but otherwise the general structure of the tune is not much different from when it first appeared on Nica’s Tempo.

Kenny Barron also performs “Shuffle Boil” on solo piano, as in his performance at the Umbria Jazz Festival in 1999. Barron starts with a fragmented take on the “Shuffle Boil” lick to start this solo version. What a great start to this tune, which starts in earnest around 0:50 at a pretty good clip. Barron can really carry a tune on solo piano, and does a great job with Monk (check out “Trinkle Tinkle” on Barron’s album What If) – this is no exception. Very strong soloing over his striding left hand. The arrangement obviously has changed as compared with the trio and quartet versions above, with the fragmented intro followed by the song’s head for solo piano and then a long piano solo, followed by a return to the head around 6:20. (For another great solo version of Barron doing “Shuffle-Boil,” check out the solo piano intro to the tune in his Quartet show at the Village Vanguard in 2008, followed by great solos from Dayna Stephens on sax and Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass, backed by Francisco Mela on drums). In this solo arrangement, Barron has started to take this song apart and reassemble it, particularly in the introduction.

The last version of “Shuffle Boil” that I’ll mention is another solo piano version, this time from Kris Bowers as recorded on NPR’s Piano Jazz: Rising Stars. This version opens with a chord that puts me in the mind of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” but maybe that is just me… this leads to a nice, contemplative introduction before a fragmented version of the “Shuffle Boil” lick is introduced (compare with the introduction to Barron’s solo version above) – great stuff in this intro! It’s almost as if Bowers was several different pianists, all interrupting each other. About 1:30 into this, “Shuffle Boil” starts in earnest with stride piano. Bowers is great at shifting the mood of the piece from one bar to the next, and around 2:15 into the song he significantly ups the drama (this section reminds me in a way of Brad Mehldau’s version of “Paranoid Android” on Live in Tokyo for the second Radiohead reference here)…At around 3:15, Bowers is really digging into this tune, some fantastic piano soloing over his insistent left hand. The “Shuffle Boil” lick re-appears around 4:45 into this and he takes the tune out with some lovely piano licks interspersed here. Wow… this is another really great version of this tune, very original and some absolutely great playing. Very highly recommended.

“Shuffle-Boil” is not the most widely-played Monk tune, and as far as I’m aware (someone correct me if I’m wrong on this!), Monk himself never returned to it after It’s Monk’s Time. Although this tune hasn’t been taken apart and re-assembled as thoroughly as, say, ”Giant Steps,” the Barron and Bowers solo versions are certainly taking big risks and they are working. Almost sixty years after “Shuffle-Boil” first appeared on Nica’s Tempo, this song is still evolving and inspiring musicians. Stay tuned…

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