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A nod to the 'High Priest of Bebop'

Thelonius Sphere Monk, aka the "High Priest of Bebop," is known for piano compositions often considered too esoteric and dissonant, yet he's the second-most recorded jazz artist after Duke Ellington, says Ashland jazz artist Thor Polson.

"If you listen to him, I dare say you'd think you'd never heard anything like him before in your life," Polson says. "His music has a distinctive quality that stands out among his contemporaries. He really went his own way, a real innovator. He extended the harmonic palette. That's why he's had a huge influence on jazz musicians."

Pianist Polson, bassist Dave Miller and drummer and percussionist Theresa McCoy will perform a musical tribute to Monk at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4, at La Baguette Music Cafe, 340 A St., Ashland. Admission is $10.

Monk's music also is characterized by his quirky, playful quality. He had a habit of standing up and dancing for a minute or two before returning to the piano during performances.

"He was around with the birth of bebop, with people like Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie," Polson says. "That would've been in the early to mid '40s. That's when his presence started to become known. He really came into his own a bit later, in the mid '50s and early '60s. He signed with Columbia Records in the early '60s, and he made the cover of Time magazine in 1964. At that point he was at the top of his game.

"Music is an acquired taste, but Monk's influence was felt immediately in the music community. You could compare him to Dave Brubeck, whose music was revolutionary at the time, but Monk's music appealed to a larger community, a community outside the jazz world."

Monk collaborated with John Coltrane, Miles Davis and other contemporaries. Charles Mingus said Monk had a flawless sense of pulse, of time, Polson says.

"Monk is admired for his finely crafted improvisations. They're thoughtfully put together, as opposed to playing a rapid series of random notes, which is what you can hear in any type of music where improvisation is important. When you begin to improvise, every note counts as opposed to an endless flurry."

Polson says there are two schools of thought when it comes to learning how to improvise jazz. The most typical is to set out to be a good player at a young age, and do a lot of listening, a lot of imitating, and learning other players' licks. Eventually, you would set all that behind you and transcend.

"You'd go your own way, but you'd be steeped in a tradition which actually involved learning," he says. "I played all my life, but I've mostly worked as a language teacher. I've only returned to music seriously within the past 10 to 15 years. And I'm not immortal. So when I listen to a pianist, I ask myself what the quality of the music is. An important part of jazz improvisation is bringing your own personality to the music.

"Sometimes I do actually imitate voicings and melodic fragments, but when I perform with Dave and Theresa on Friday night, I'm not there to be an imitator. We're there to convey the feel of the music. There's a division between a cerebral, cognitive approach to music and a soulful, spontaneous approach. I can consciously think about chords, fingerings and phrasings, but when I get to the gig, there's no time to pause, linger or hold on to anything. You have to go with it."

Miller and McCoy are members of the Rogue Valley Symphony Orchestra and can look at Monk's music as classical musicians would, as complex harmonically, Polson says. But when they start to play Monk's music, it's not a theoretical activity. They are just trying to groove.

"At our last rehearsal, we had 21 tunes picked out for the gig," he says. "We were concerned because that's more than two hours of music. We finally agreed to just go ahead and play them all. If people get tired, they can head off home or something."

Look for tunes such as "Evidence," "Round Midnight," a jazz waltz called "Ugly Beauty" and more undeniably beautiful music.

Polson intends to present other tribute programs such as this one. The next will be a tribute to Herbie Hancock in 2017.

Thelonius Monk in 1947 Minton's Playhouse in New York City. The jazz pianist and composer made many contributions to the standard jazz repertoire, including ''Round Midnight,' 'Blue Monk,' 'Straight, No Chaser,' 'Ruby, My Dear,' 'In Walked Bud' and 'Well, You Needn't.'