Considered by many to be Monk’s single best album. You’ll get no argument here. This is a great one from the Riverside years, at the height of the hard bop era. I think this has a few particular things going for it that separate it from many other really good Monk albums. One is that it is recorded well. Monk’s earliest recordings featured great performances but the recording technology was rather lo-fi by comparison. This also has good energy. It may not be the frenetic energy of the be-bop era proper, now softened a bit for the hard bop era, but energy is still there in a way that would dissipate quickly in the 1960s. Last, but most importantly, this album is quite varied. It opens with the title track, which was so difficult for the band to play that it actually is presented as an assemblage of excerpts from different takes. It has a great horn riff, played with a kind of teetering machismo that suits the horn players. “Pannonica” is a tribute to Monk’s patron Nica — Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter (née Rothschild) — featuring him on the celeste rather than piano. It has that unmistakable Monkish quality of playful irreverence, simple and complex at the same time. It sets a completely different mood than “Brilliant Corners.” “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are” is also something of a de Koenigswarter tribute, named after the Bolivar Hotel where she lived in New York City. There is one standard, “I Surrender Dear.” The album concludes with the great “Bemsha Swing,” a tangly composition that is one of my favorites. Monk’s compositional style is immediately recognizable in the song. Drummer Max Roach plays tympani, which adds depth to the performance. Across the whole album, Monk is present as a performer but his own playing is hardly a dominant or overriding presence. Despite the many great ides expressed in Monk’s solos, there remains plenty of space for the other performers to express themselves too. This album was greeted with decent sales and a glowing critical reception. Monk regained his cabaret card and launched a famous stand at the Five Spot Café in New York City’s Bowery neighborhood upon its release, which helped raise his recognition within the jazz community at the time and reinforce his continued relevance.
A good live album recorded April 18, 1961 with the same small combo Monk worked with through much of the 60s. But, by comparison, there just isn’t much to distinguish this from the many other good-to-great live Monk albums out there. So, this one ends up being more for the obsessive completist, though on the other hand there isn’t much to fault fault here other than redundancy.
Here’s a great album, if also one that can easily be forgotten among other great jazz material by Monk and others of his era. It is yet another one of those Monk albums with a familiar selection of his tunes he had recorded before. But this performance is different. This is a large band (orchestra), a dectet filled with top-notch players. This would be long-time collaborator Charlie Rouse‘s first recording with Monk. The band rehearsed extensively — rehearsals started at 3 AM, after the performers finished regular gigs at clubs, and ran until morning. That effort payed off. This is a crisp performance for being the group’s public debut.
Monk came up in the be-bop era, which worked somewhat against the trends of “big bands” of the swing era. So this is a somewhat incongruous staging of his music. But it works. A big reason for its success is that the large horn section is used to fill out and enliven the tunes without overdoing it or depriving the songs of the qualities that make them great when performed by a small combo. The arrangements are somewhat streamlined harmonically, to accentuate the melodic and rhythmic elements. Yet the harmonics have a subtlety to them that totally subverts the sort of highbrow pretensions that might have been employed instead. Max Harrison once wrote,
“Thelonious Monk works so exclusively with the most basic materials of jazz that, in the best moments, his playing almost becomes a working definition of that music. Monk’s pianistic strength lies not in complex executive feats but in a sensitive, vividly incisive deployment of those basics; time, accent, metre, space[.]”
The idiosyncratic phrasings and percussive attacks that immediately identify Monk’s own piano playing are here, with the orchestra hewing closely to a typical Monk performance. Yet the sonic fabric is different. It expands into places a piano can’t go. The players retain some freedom too. The performances breathe like jazz.
The arrangements are by Hall Overton. They are superb. Overton and Monk worked closely together to refine everything. “Little Rootie Tootie” is maybe the most intriguing of the arrangements, with a punchiness and brightness that puts a really unique spin on the tune.
The first time I heard about this album was a mention in the book The Jazz Loft Project, which noted Monk rehearsing at Overton’s loft, located in the same building where photographer and jazz buff W. Eugene Smith lived. Smith recorded rehearsals — excerpts are heard on this podcast.
All things considered, At Town Hall can count itself among Monk’s best albums. In a sense, it foreshadows some of the ways avant garde jazz would continue to experiment with large bands in the coming decade (The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, etc.). Big Band and Quartet in Concert would reprise the style of this album a few years later, with Overton again arranging.
Link to an article by Timothy Bryar:
“Preferring Zizek’s Bartleby Politics,” International Journal of Žižek Studies, Vol 12, No 1 (2018).
Bonus quotes: “When the self ceases to exist, the world exists.” Alejandro Jodorowsky, The Finger and the Moon: Zen Teachings and Koans and “The Sunrise Movement seems much more positive to me. I love that [students] are not going to school and are calling for people to not go to school. I think that’s awesome. Because young people’s job . . . is to reproduce the society that exists. So if they say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that, we have to stop right now. Reproducing this society is the thing we can’t do…’ To step back and say, ‘No, we want to do something different’ — I think that’s really powerful and very smart on them.” Malcolm Harris, “The Millennial Condition: History, Revolution, and Generational Analysis”
Link to an article by
This article is rather poorly written, full of self-congratulatory statements, gossipy digressions, and poor organization. It also succumbs to the philosophically naive belief that “objective” journalism free from ideology is possible — as Rex Butler put it, “it is not simply a matter of seeing which account of reality best matches the ‘facts’, with the one that is closest being the least biased and therefore the best. As soon as the facts are determined, we have already — whether we know it or not — made our choice; we are already within one ideological system or another. The real dispute has already taken place over what is to count as the facts, which facts are relevant, and so on.” But in spite of all that, the article does point to useful information about the likely source of this neo-McCarthyist campaign within the Clinton political camp.
Bonus links: “Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites” and “Fake News on Russia and Other Official Enemies” and “New York Times Cashes in on Facebook’s News Censorship” and “From Facebook to Policebook” and “The New Blacklist”