Presented on this album are live recordings of Ornette and his Prime Time band performing for the opening of the Caravan of Dreams club/cultural center in Ornette’s home town of Fort Worth Texas. This is basically an extension of the same funk/R&B and free jazz fusion that the group had performed and recorded in the past. Though this particular set of performances has a more raw and visceral tone than the group’s last studio album, Of Human Feelings. The band gets to wail away with each band member going in his own direction and it kind of makes some intuitive sense that facilitating this is their objective. Yet they also come together for joint or “unison” statements on songs like “City Living” and “Compute.” One commentator referred to this as a riff hybrid format, with repeatable riffs organized within a structure that recalled pre-Prime Time efforts. Ornette’s own performances aren’t perhaps as memorable as elsewhere, though he does deploy a remarkably wide assortment of stylistic flourishes, but the rest of the band sounds tighter than usual. Occasional use of cowbell, a whistle and some kind of electronic beeper add nice little touches too. If you like Prime Time’s music, this is sure to please. If you don’t, this probably won’t change your mind, though to these ears the live setting does make this more engaging than most Prime Time albums.
A pretty mediocre Monk album. This is a one-off quintet with a cornet, and there are some new songs debuted. But the playing is rather programmatic. The players generally don’t push themselves, and there is nothing in the way of interesting interactions between them. Monk plays well, but that just isn’t enough. I would place this near the bottom of the pack when ranking the Riverside albums.
Well, I’ve said before that It’s Monk’s Time is my second favorite Monk studio album on Columbia Records. But that was only because I hadn’t yet heard Monk. yet. This is another good one from the otherwise somewhat underwhelming Columbia years. Charlie Rouse is really stupendous. There was a quality in Monk’s playing during this time period that tended toward the dry and lethargic, and when the energy in his playing started to flag Charlie Rouse seemed to come in to the rescue. That is an admirable thing. And it shows in the music. At least I hear it and welcome it. Oh, and “Children’s Song (That Old Man)” is a folk song whose melody was later used for the “I Love You” song by Barney the purple dinosaur — a target of much ire in the “cynical 90s.” Maybe Monk. falls a bit short of the man’s very best albums, but it is a dark horse for the top of the second tier.
Thelonious Monk lost his cabaret card in 1951, which prevented him from performing live in New York for a number of years in the 1950s. But he regained it and undertook a long stand at the Five Spot Café in 1957. He returned to the Five Spot in 1958 with another band, documented on two albums: Misterioso and Thelonious in Action. The Five Spot was a small club in the Bowery. Monk’s appearance there was crucial in establishing the club as a congregation point for bohemian types like the Beats and assorted hangers-on — a good description of the club’s clientele and their motivations is found in the book The Battle of the Five Spot. It was around this time that Monk enjoyed some of the widest critical acclaim of his career, and, relatively speaking, his music was commercially successful too.
The 1958 Five Spot band played hard bop, of a kind that sort of epitomized its hip bohemian qualities. As usual, Monk was reprising a lot of his own songs he had played and recorded before, along with some standards. But “Light Blue” and “Coming on the Hudson” were original compositions that appeared on record for the first time on Thelonious in Action as was “Blues Five Spot” on Misterioso.
Johnny Griffin was the group’s tenor saxophonist. While both albums are well-respected, Griffin’s performances tend to draw more split opinions. That may be because his style of playing, on the one hand, deploys a kind of showy exposition of lighting fast fingering, and, on the other hand, quotes trivial pop melodies and floats away from the songs in a modernistic way the points beyond hard bop conventions. His more loose and freewheeling solos appear on Misterioso. The drums and bass are fine, but are mostly anchored in a very conventional hard bop style, especially the walking bass. Monk’s own playing is more gregarious than usual here. Compared to the free jazz explosion just starting to appear — Cecil Taylor‘s group was booked at the very same Five Spot Café in late 1956 and Ornette Coleman‘s quartet would kick start the revolution from the club the following year — this stuff is comparatively tame, but it still points in that direction. In a way, it is possible to look at these albums as a kind of breaking point that map out the limits of where conservative and reactionary jazz listeners and critics started to bail out, as the overall commercial prospects for jazz music began to erode in the face of the growing popularity or rock ‘n roll (and folk).
These are some of the most beloved albums in Monk’s entire discography. I do think some go overboard with praise for these — nothing here quite matches Monk’s best Blue Note sides, for instance. But there is also plenty of room for a lot of great Monk albums, and these two certain belong somewhere among the best of them — “Misterioso” and “Blues Five Spot” are perhaps the best individual songs here.
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 way, 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.
Monk’s years on the Columbia label were mostly marked by restatements of his earlier innovations. His prime years were mostly behind him. It’s Monk’s Time might be my second favorite of his Columbia studio albums, after Monk’s Dream, both of which are edged out by the awesome posthumous archival live recording Live at the It Club (especially the “complete” two-disc version). The band is in good form — Charlie Rouse has a great boisterous, stuttering solo on “Brake’s Sake” — and Monk himself is playing well — much more strongly than on his last album Criss-Cross, and with a number of thoughtful, unaccompanied segments. This is the mature Monk, and he sounds right at home in that role. The album is half semi-obscure Monk originals (all previously recorded) and half standards. It makes for a good mix. This is strangely one of the lesser-known Monk albums on Columbia, but it is actually one of his better ones on the label.
Ornette Coleman – Tomorrow Is the Question! The New Music of Ornette Coleman! Contemporary M 3569 (1959)
There is an old saying, “To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” This adage goes a long way to explain Ornette’s earliest studio recordings. In hindsight at least, it is fairly clear that he had his musical vision already worked out in the mid-1950s. His problem — well, one of his problems — was bringing together musicians sympathetic to his radically new ideas and then getting them up to speed performing based on those new ideas rather than being “hammers” banging on nails like they usually did in conventional jazz combos. He was practicing regularly, in private, with a core handful of players like Don Cherry. The thing was, while living in Los Angeles, he secured his first recording contract as an offshoot of selling some compositions to Contemporary Records (run by Lester Koenig, who was blacklisted from Hollywood films during the McCarthy witchhunt era). He began recording with groups that included some mediocre players and some bigger name players brought in just to play recording sessions. For the most part, Ornette had already met and played with the musicians who would make up arguably his greatest combo, which would record extensively for Atlantic Records, but for whatever reason Cherry and Billy Higgins (Higgins being absent here) were the only ones to appear on Ornette’s recordings for Contemporary. For instance, Ornette had asked drummer Ed Blackwell to play on his debut album Something Else!!!! but Blackwell turned down the offer. Blackwell later joined Ornette’s band in New York City after fleeing discriminatory miscegenation charges in New Orleans.
Shelly Manne on drums sounds just fine here. Ignore the detractors! Manne was always one of the most forward-thinking West Coast players. He has a more open and spare style than Billy Higgins. Given more time to play with Ornette, I imagine Manne would have gone even further out — though that wasn’t to be, because Ornette moved to the East Coast. Manne nonethless credited his time playing with Ornette as being significant to his later work.
Percy Heath and Red Mitchell, great bassists in their own rights, just go on playing in a progressive yet still conventional style that isn’t always enough for what Ornette’s music calls for. Heath and Mitchell are the “hammers” in this band. Sessions with Mitchell took place first. Mitchell is out of his element, and Ornette felt Mitchell thought he was a bit looney. Though Mitchell was a noted bop player in Los Angeles at the time, and was responsible for putting Ornette in touch with Contemporary Records in the first place, he clearly isn’t interested in Ornette’s pioneering musical ideas. Ornette actually recruited Heath, the bassist for the renown Modern Jazz Quartet, for a third recording session after two with Mitchell were fairly unproductive. Ornette’s recruiting efforts also put him in touch with The MJQ’s pianist John Lewis, who was immediately impressed by Ornette’s music, and who would end up being the single most decisive factor in Ornette’s critical success down the road. It is not an overstatement to say that Ornette would have been forgotten to history and his best music never recorded if not for Lewis.
Anyway, by ditching a piano, Tomorrow Is the Question! sounds worlds better than the debut (this album was Ornette’s second to be recorded, but was released third). Sure, things got better from here, but this is still a good one. The opening title track is a really great composition, highly indicative of Ornette’s off-kilter yet oddly endearing nursery rhyme melodies. It starts the album off on a high note. And the rest of the album is good too. Actually, it’s better than just good, thanks to a lot of great compositions, more confident playing from Cherry (though he would play even more strongly in the future), and, of course, unique and inventive soloing from Ornette himself on pretty much every song. The recording is crisp enough that even when Mitchell plays just a plain vanilla walk it leave space to hear Ornette’s microtonal explorations on his (plastic) horn. So, Tomorrow Is the Question! pales only in comparison to what Ornette had in store next, but is quite rewarding in its own right.
Ornette’s last solo album before his death, and first in a decade (after releasing three albums in 1996), found surprising success. This is a live recording with Ornette’s working band. He seems to have learned that it takes two bassists to replace Charlie Haden. On the whole, this album is nostalgic and kind of presents a summary of Ornette’s entire career. “Sleep Talk” sounds good in this reading. There isn’t a whole lot else here that stands out, but this is consistent top to bottom. The reasons this became so popular probably have more to do with timing (Ornette’s stature plus the gap since his last albums) and, especially, promotion (Ornette granted an uncommon number of interviews) than purely the merits of the performance.