Monday 4 December 2023

'5 by Monk by Csatari' ::: Tom Csatari interview


'5 by Monk by Csatari' marks the new solo project from guitarist Tom Csatari who pays homage to revered pianist and composer, Thelonious Monk.  

Noted for being a keen improviser within his music, there's a lot of brilliance attributed to Monk for his abilities as a performer, his distinct style and progressive perception of jazz and his own music.  "I don't know what other people are doing; I just know about me" - incredibly perceptive and wise words that serve as just one of Monk's numerous insights that impart the importance of an artist staying true to themselves and striving to carve out their own lane.  Words that would no doubt ring true to guitarist and composer, Tom Csatari.

As founder of the New York-based nine-piece jazz ensemble, Uncivilized, much of the band's music was celebrated for its varied influences, its "no rules" approach to music-making, its embracing of every prefix of jazz that someone could conjure up from "folk-", "free-" and "psych-" jazz.  Through their single releases including 'Yams', 'Reign STOMP' and the full-length live album 'Garden', Uncivilized boasted their absolute committment to carving out their own lane in the true Monk mould.

Despite Csatari's continual innovations as part of Uncivilized, both he, and the band, never shyed away from wearing their influences on their sleeve - with past releases and live performances showing love to the music of everything from Chico Hamilton to the TV show Twin Peaks, it is now the turn of Thelonious Monk to receive the "Uncivilized" treatment.  Over the course of the project's six tracks, '5 by Monk by Csatari' sees Csatari - guitar in hand - tackle a selection of Monk compositions and lovingly paying tribute to a master of his craft.

We caught up with Tom Csatari to talk all things Thelonious Monk, his move from New York to Australia, his upcoming guitar book and his Ignore Heroes record label...

Congratulations on the release of '5 by Monk by Csatari': are you happy with how the project has been received so far?

This is sort of a funny question, because:

a. We haven’t yet received much “praise” for the album so far, except for a few kind testimonial quotes from  mentors and colleagues that we used in the press materials for the album: Adam Levy (Norah Jones), Steve Cardenas (Paul Motian, Madeleine Peiroux), and Sam Lisabeth (Guerilla Toss, Martyr Group) all offered supportive descriptions when I was still deciding to put the album out). 


b. The album is half-joke; it’s more of an anarchic artistic statement than anything: a documentation of a moment in time for me living in a foreign country, recording songs on a borrowed guitar from my niece (a Taylor Swift signature model). I don’t even know what it means to put an album out in 2023 anymore— people seem more interested in playlists, so I tried to keep this one short and gnarly and to capture my own rough, on-the-fly interpretations of 5 Monk tunes that I’ve been playing for at least 5 years (I also love the Monk album *5 by Monk by 5*, so the album was a bit of a nod to that great music).

I like all the “mistakes” (happy accidents?) on it and it’s fun to subvert what an album even is and what a “record label” is (this one came out on my own guerilla-publishing entity “Ignore Heroes”. 

I guess I wasn’t really going for “beauty”, more archiving my process and creating little digital sculptures. Sometimes I get an idea for a “release” in my head and I just want to make it happen and find that whole process fun and rewarding, irregardless of potential “listenability” or “sales potential”, but then I would be lying if I didn’t admit to you and everyone that I am very much putting this thing out there (hopefully I can break even and make my expenses back), and the concept of putting your own musical statements out there (a “self-release”), what with all the technology at our disposal these days, for better or worse.

I recorded this album alone in my office using a program called Soundation, which is a browser-only recording DAW that allows anyone in the world to record over the internet, even without a microphone. (I used a direct input and had the project mastered afterwards, but that was not necessary and I love how simple and lo-tech the interface of Soundation is.) 

What initially brought you to the music of Thelonious Monk?

I’ve been listening to Monk since probably age 14. I was in a funk band in high school and the drummer was always trying to get us to play more jazz and so he was having me listen to all the classics and I think I heard the Charlie Parker version of ‘Round Midnight first, then maybe Straight No Chaser and eventually the great versions of ‘Round Midnight by the jazz guitarists Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, and Kenny Burrell.

I came of age during the era of music videos, and I do remember there was this amazing commercial for VH1 Save The Music (an initiative to teach music in public schools). In the ad, a child was playing Monk’s tune “Blue Monk” slowly on the clarinet: the melody is so quirky but also universal and fits over a 12-bar blues— it’s instantly recognisable and hummable. Try humming it right now!?

How did you connect with Tristan Cooley for the album?

Tristan and I go way back. We connected over email for this one (he recorded his part in Vermont.) We’re both massive Monk fans and have been playing his music in person for ages. I sent him the tracks I was recording with the idea that he could track flute on them; he picked “Blue Monk” and simply let loose while his microphone was on, then sent it back to me over Google Drive with a file name monkeyblues.wav — I found an old flier for a gig we played duo in Manhattan right around the corner from the famous jazz club The Village Vanguard in 2012 and made that the artwork for the album’s lead single. (Funny story : when we played that gig the legendary bassist Christian McBride came in during his break to watch football and get a drink: we both saw him and immediately went into “Light Blue” by Thelonious Monk— the hippest and hardest tune we could think of. He didn’t turn around. No one applauded. We didn’t get paid. So New York!)

What's one song by Thelonious Monk that everyone should listen to?

Hard to pick one! Probably ‘Round Midnight or Ask Me Now, both of which have been recently recorded by Jon Batiste. 

Brilliant Corners is pretty epic too— kind of a metal/hardcore vibe at times if you listen to Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band version. 

What is the concept behind Ignore Heroes?

Ignore Heroes is an anti-capitalist concept. It’s about pushing back against the tropes of western society which tell us to make gods out of celebrities and worship vanity over kindness. 

The project’s moto is: it’s all good; it’s all bad— a value-zero music platform.

The phrase comes from a book entitled *War Boy*, and the quote goes: "Storytellers lie was right up there at the top of Jonnyboy’s rules-to-live-by list with Ignore heroes and Never make decisions based on fear." 

Read the first chapter over here:

The wonderful Jaimie Branch appears on the Uncivilized album 'Garden': do you have fond memories of your time performing with her?

We used to walk our dogs together in the same park in red hook brooklyn. She lived around the corner from me and we sometimes crossed paths at the local coffee shop or playing gigs together in the free-jazz music scene in Brooklyn. She also used to be the sound engineer / sound-person at a venue called Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint where I recorded part of my second album *Outro Waltz* for Tiny Montgomery Records which features RJ Miller:

Garden was recorded live at Pioneer Works— I saw her the day before in the park and told her about the show and asked her to come sit in with us (it was rare that she was around for more than a week or so what with her touring). 

I emailed her some charts and then at the gig told her to start playing when she heard the Twin Peaks theme— she stayed up there with us for like 40 minutes after that and fit right in with that crew of whackos and her dog Patton was there wandering in the crowd (it was an outdoor show).

We were supposed to do a recording session in 2020 after Covid but she was out in Alaska on a grant or something. 

So so sad to hear of her passing last year— her latest album and the stuff with Anteloper is such a potent stuff: such a shame she won’t be around to keep pushing us all towards the sky.

You're currently working on a book to celebrate your passion for the guitar: how is it currently progressing and what can people expect from it?

Yes! The project is called Guitar Uncivilized and is all about the folky/shred duality of the guitar— a trashy glam toy of the everyday, like a cigarette!? 

The book contains interviews; chords; anecdotes; excercises; un-concepts; concepts; and lots of crazy guitar chords. There’s even a photo of Miles Davis playing the guitar which we have the Newsweek photographers permission to incorporate into the book!

It may spin out into a podcast or a series of books / a method for approaching music: please visit if you are interested! 

Uncivilized has celebrated the music of artists including Thelonious Monk, Chico Hamilton, Placebo and even the music of Twin Peaks: who would be another artist whose music you would like to celebrate?

I’m sort of a closet pop head, so I’d love to explore and celebrate the music of Max Martin— the Swedish mastermind behind Britney Spears, the boy bands, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry. He writes the catchiest melodies and really understands song form.

How has the adjustment been from moving to NYC to Australia and how would you define the differences in music scenes?

The adjust has been interesting. Good health care system here and much higher standard of treatment by employers and the government and much more emphasis for my children on the aboriginal communities that have been on this land for centuries. 

As far as music making goes, jazzers always find each other and I was lucky enough to have the great saxophonist Jay Rodriguez connect me with some great folks in Sydney. I’m one hour up the coast in what is like Malibu to LA but more back-woods Aussy… the main difference is all the surfing culture over here and the amazing coffee! 

Who would be a dream artist for you to either record or perform with?

Mr Misterioso himself: Thelonious Sphere Monk; Paul Bley; or Carla Bley on organ (RIP).

I’m also interested in incorporating turntabling into the Uncivilized sound to reference the nu-metal genre!? So, DJ Spooky?

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