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.
A solid one from the Columbia years. Not quite a match for the superb Monk’s Dream released the same year, though, because this is weighted down by an unconvincing rendition of “Tea for Two” and occasionally lackdaisical performances by Monk himself.
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.
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.
Possibly Monk’s second best live recording, after Live at the It Club: Complete (though Thelonious in Action might be another contender). Monk went way out west to record with Shelly Manne, but when that meeting didn’t work out, Monk’s regular quartet recorded this live date instead with two guests. The results speak for themselves, with solid playing from the quartet and just enough variety added by the new players to make this something other than yet another set of readings of familiar Monk tunes.
Billy Higgins (d) was no slouch when it came to the avant-garde, but his playing was always rooted in bop. In short, that made him a player a lot like Monk. John Ore (b) was a dependable member of the quartet. He doesn’t ever capture the spot light. But he also never screws the pooch either. Then there is Charlie Rouse (ts). Monk and Rouse went together like peas and carrots, milk and cookies, bread and butter…hell, name your analogy. Rouse brought an energy and an almost telepathic understanding of Monk’s songwriting and playing so that he’s usually the group’s biggest asset, and this disc is no exception.
The guests, Joe Gordon (t) and Harold Land (ts), play things particularly straight. Gordon sticks to pretty standard hard bop stylings. That’s perfectly fine. Monk rarely included trumpet in his recordings as a leader, so having one present is unusual enough in itself. Land comes across as something of a lesser version of Coltrane (much lesser actually), who had been in Monk’s working group a few years previous. The contrast between Land and Rouse is quite stark, and makes for a funny indicator of how Rouse just “got” Monk’s music better than anyone else.
Likely because of the two guests, who had only minimal prep time to integrate themselves with the quartet, Monk and Rouse really step up in their playing to carry the day. The guests add some new flavors, but fortunately they take secondary roles and are content to just pop in for occasional solos. So, you still get to hear the great Monk/Rouse team in action. The sound on this may disappoint some — patrons of the Blackhawk club can distinctly be heard talking away during the recording (at least on the CD reissue with some bonus tracks). But forget that. This is a pretty good Monk recording, well worth the time.