Thelonious Monk – 5 by Monk by 5

5 by Monk by 5

Thelonious Monk5 by Monk by 5 Riverside RS 12-9305 (1959)


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.

Thelonious Monk – Monk.

Monk.

Thelonious MonkMonk. Columbia CL 2291 (1965)


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 [19]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 – 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.

Thelonious Monk – Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington

Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington

Thelonious MonkThelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington Riverside RLP 12-201 (1955)


Okay, but somehow lacking.  Though Clarke and Pettiford make up an A-list rhythm section, they don’t seem to bring their “A” game to this recording.  People often note how Monk softened the edges of his playing during his tenure on Columbia Records, but even here on Riverside he was doing that already.

Thelonious Monk Quartet – Monk’s Dream

Monk's Dream

Thelonious Monk QuartetMonk’s Dream Columbia CS-8765 (1963)


Monk was always something of a delightful mess of contradictions.  His works were always too odd to fit neatly within the bop school, or any other, yet he always looked back toward an idiosyncratic version of traditionalism, sticking with the same basic style for his whole career and never chasing fads.  His seemingly willfully unorthodox (some would say poor) technique was belied in that he chose to play that way, known to rehearse in a more conventional manner.

On Columbia Records, Monk established a pattern of mostly re-recording old favorites and tossing in a select few new compositions.  From one perspective, that’s a disappointment.  On a re-recording, Monk was never going to match the magnificent, startling, timeless splendor of his early Blue Note recordings, or even the often crudely performed and recorded but no-less-charmingly-weird-for-it efforts of his brief Prestige tenure.  But, let’s take this from another point of view.  If you could write a song like “Monk’s Dream” or “Bye-Ya,” shit, wouldn’t YOU play it (and record it) all the time?  Monk knew what he had on his hands.  And he made good use of it.  He also adapted perfectly to his growing commercial success pretty comfortably.  He may have mellowed a bit, but he never gave up on his offbeat innovations and mannerisms.

Charlie Rouse was the most effective saxophonist who ever played with Monk.  His woody, slightly gritty tone sat well alongside Monk’s percussive piano playing, particularly in the 1960s when Monk had buffed his music down to something well-worn but still with a glint of sparkle.  Rouse is pretty energetic here, somewhat in contrast to Monk, and is ready to jump out with a solo just as twisted as any of Monk’s melodies.  Having Rouse on his game, with the rhythm section rising to the occasion, and thanks to the kind of wonderful production values the switch to Columbia provided, this is a thoroughly pleasant and engaging set.  If this strikes your fancy, check out Live at the It Club: Complete.