Thelonious Monk – Misterioso and Thelonious In Action

Misterioso  Thelonious in Action

Thelonious Monk QuartetMisterioso Riverside RLP 12-279 (1958) and Thelonious In Action Riverside RLP-12-262 (1958)


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.

Thelonious Monk – Brilliant Corners

Brilliant Corners

Thelonious MonkBrilliant Corners Riverside RLP 12-226 (1957)


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.

Thelonious Monk – Monk in France

Monk in France

Thelonious MonkMonk in France Riverside RS 9491 (1966)


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.

Thelonious Monk Orchestra – At Town Hall

At Town Hall

The Thelonious Monk OrchestraAt Town Hall Riverside RLP 12-300 (1959)


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.

Thelonious Monk – It’s Monk’s Time

It's Monk's Time

Thelonious MonkIt’s Monk’s Time Columbia CS 8984 (1964)


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!

Tomorrow Is the Question! The New Music of Ornette Coleman!

Ornette ColemanTomorrow 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 Coleman – Sound Grammar

Sound Grammar

Ornette ColemanSound Grammar Sound Grammar SG 11593 (2006)


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.

Ornette Coleman – New York Is Now!

New York Is Now!

Ornette ColemanNew York Is Now! Blue Note BST 84287 (1968)


As much as I find a lot of individual elements of this music rewarding, New York Is Now! never quite comes together as well as it could.  “Broad Way Blues” is a catchy, memorable tune.  The opener “The Garden of Souls” has a lot going for it too.  Ornette’s playing is pretty good throughout — especially on “The Garden of Souls.”  Dewey Redman makes some solid contributions too.  But the nagging problem is basically the same one that plagued Ornette’s early albums for Contemporary Records: the rhythm section just isn’t right.  Often the rhythm section seems to be operating in a different world than Ornette and Redman.  Jimmy Garrison is on bass.  He had played with Ornette in the early 60s, but on these sessions he is hostile and uncooperative.  Elvin Jones is a great drummer, just not the right kind of drummer for this music.  He’s a little too uptight.  This was recorded in the spring of 1968, and live recordings made over the next twelve months for the Impulse! label would prove more effective, thanks to a different rhythm section — though Ornette has some arguably stronger moments in his own playing here.  Now, had these sessions featured Henry Grimes on bass and Rashied Ali on drums, that might have been something.  Or even if some of the songs featured Ornette unaccompanied, or just with Redman.

I came to this album after hearing Joe Lovano and Greg Osby‘s version of “Broad Way Blues” on Friendly Fire and I wanted to check out the original recording.  I can’t say I’ve ever returned to the Lovano/Osby version.  But I don’t return to Ornette’s late 1960s small combo recordings much either—it’s a period that has always perplexed and frustrated me, with too many failed experiments and tentative half-measures.  After hearing Lovano/Osby, then Ornette’s original, I found myself gravitating more to Change of the Century, which was an Ornette album readily available to me at the time.

Ornette Coleman – Ornette at 12

Ornette at 12

Ornette ColemanOrnette at 12 Impulse! AS-9178 (1969


Ornette’s first of two albums — both recorded live — for the Impulse! label.  The band is Ornette, Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman, and Denardo Ornette Coleman (Ornette’s son).  Denardo was 12 years old at the time, hence the title of the album.  Much has been said and written about Denardo’s presence — nepotism? a reliance on the fact that he was too young to have learned “conventional” jazz drumming?  The perfect fit?  Here, he does manage to contribute some things, though I wouldn’t say he is able to sustain a level of meaningful contribution over the entire performance.  The opener “C.O.D.” (whatever that acronym stands for!) is the highlight, with some great interplay between the two sax players, but “New York” is strong too, with a long section for Haden to stretch out while Denardo holds back.  The rest (“Rainbows,” “Bells and Chimes”) is not especially memorable, with Ornette playing trumpet and violin less successfully than elsewhere.  Lots of this is in the style of Ornette’s albums for Blue Note (New York Is Now!, Love Call), recorded earlier the same year, though a bit better thanks to the presence of a more sympathetic rhythm section.  So, on the whole this is decent if still a bit uneven.  The next Impulse! album Crisis is stronger.  For what it is worth, Impulse! marketed this as a studio album, though it is in fact a live recording with audible noise from the audience.