Thelonious Monk, Giorgio de Chirico, and the Importance of Album Art
I’m a bad person. I always judge books by their covers. An idiotic move, I know, but it’s an impulse I can’t shake. There are few instances of me completely disregarding an album because I thought the picture on the front was hideous—and thank God, because would I have ever really listened to John Prine if I did? Yet I have to think that there’s some sort of disconnect between an artist and I if I’m looking at the front and pondering “Why in God’s name would you want this to be the first thing people see?” The opposite is true, too. An album cover I find fascinating has the power to reel me in for multiple listens even when the first few spins have left me disaffected or, worse, cold. What, you think I was smart enough to appreciate Misterioso the first time it ran through my speakers?
In Clyde Edgerton’s 2011 novel The Night Train, the mysterious character known only as “The Bleeder” tells a young Larry Lemon that the first time he heard Monk’s “Misterioso,” he wept over its beauty. Understandable in some respects—though an admittance here that my own reaction was a bit different, a moment of becoming less naive about the world. Still a budding jazz fan, I was watching some made-for-the-internet-only documentary concerning rock critics—one in particular, and you can probably guess who—the first time I encountered the childlike finger-punched piano keys crawling over one another. And then the album art appeared on the screen.
There’s something in Giorgio de Chirico’s The Seer (1915) that instantly intrigued me. Without pretending I know anything about surrealist art (because apparently there’s some debate as to whether Chirico was a surrealist), I can safely say the similarities between the world depicted in the painting and our own are unsettling in the least—in a very, very good way. That there’s enough recognizable, manmade objects, like the architectural design-laden blackboard or the block of wood supporting the amputated humanoid mannequin, puts us somewhere not too far removed from what we know. Nevertheless, everything in the painting—the figure, the building, everything—rests on the mercy of the wooden platform floating aimlessly against a backdrop of deep-dusk nebulous blue. The success is the feeling of walking though a dreamscape where what’s familiar and what’s bizarre are virtually indistinguishable, as what appears to be normal is hard to explain, and the inexplicable often the more comforting elements present.
So let me confess that it wasn’t merely Chirico’s work that made me keep on Misterioso. The title track’s slow, innocent simplicity is quite affecting, and my favorite Monk album, The Unique Thelonious Monk, constantly badgered me to continue trying to penetrate and appreciate the first five tracks. It’s not that I for a second entertained the thought that the remainder should be dismissed—it’s that I didn’t get it the first time out. At present, with each successive listen, the album comes to me more and more, always in bits and pieces as if reconstructing a dream. And Chirico’s The Seer is part of that dream. The music and the art are tethered to a world not unlike this one, but when the lines are cast out into the ethereal, each step on the wooden platform feels as though there’s nothing but air beneath, that Monk’s fingers delicately tap each piano key like a hollow eggshell ready to shatter, the realms of both music and oil on canvas interweaving to stitch together a vision and experience so fragile it’s as if it were made of glass.