Jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk loved Laurel and Hardy, and playing Yahtzee with his wife Nellie, and ping pong. He once played 60 consecutive games of pong against John Coltrane, Monk winning all but one. He also lost his cabaret card (a license to play in New York clubs) for a time after being busted holding fellow pianist Bud Powell’s stash of heroin. An English Hungarian Baroness devoted her life to his patronage, even leaving her children behind, upon first hearing Monk’s music. His playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Kenny Clarke birthed Bebop, the complex rhythmic stew that changed the face of jazz. Monk’s life is sort of the quintessential American experience — filled with innovation, the impact of racism, even marked by a climactic third act when he clawed his way back to the top of the heap.
Monk was a classically trained musician. Full of equanimity, Monk knew his limitations, and expanded them across his compositions. He was fully retired from music by the mid 70s, and died in 1982. Before that silence, Monk was forthright with what he wanted out of sound and what he needed to coax from his musicians. Monk’s musicality was so broad that John Coltrane explained his time playing with the pianist in a 1960 Downbeat interview. “I would talk to Monk about musical problems,” Coltrane told the interviewer, “and he would sit at the piano and show me the answers just by playing them.”
With two rediscovered releases in barely a year’s time, Monk is once again reclaiming his importance, this time posthumously. 2017’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 looms large over this year’s issue, Mønk, released Gearbox Records. That’s largely because Les Liaisons was partially stewarded by the king of rediscovered jazz recordings, Resonance Record’s Zev Feldman. Feldman’s hand in the recent jazz revival is every bit as artful and precise as Thelonious Monk’s piano. Both releases feature long time Monk saxophonist Charlie Rouse. Les Liaisons is a studio session that features a rare two tenor band backing the pianist. Mønk is a live outing with one of the tightest bands he performed and recorded with. Both releases offer songs fans will recognize instantly.
While Les Liaisons may have overshadowed this release (its liner notes were written by Monk’s best biographer, UCLA’s Nash Professor of American History Robin Kelley) the music on Mønk is more intriguing as it showcases this quartet blistering on a live date; something previous attempts failed to do. The recording comes from a Copenhagen date in early March of 1963. Monk, along with his quartet of Rouse, bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop, had recorded Monk’s Dream, Criss Cross, Monk in Italy, and Monk in France, the latter two a couple of live sets that put little sheen the quartet’s abilities. Their studio recordings, however, are must haves. Ore and Dunlop would both be gone from the band by ’64. Rouse would stick with Monk until 1970. Their work with Monk serves as high water mark for his last full decade as a gigging and working jazzer. He would equal this level of play with other musicians, though never as consistently.
Monk and his peers toed the compositional tightrope following creative instinct into aggressively improvisational music while at the same time trying to remain attractive to listeners. Free Jazzers like Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman (whose music Monk pointedly disliked) cut their teeth on the robustly harmonious music of their jazz forefathers, like Monk and Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong. Still, the free jazzers sought to strip out much of melody’s repetitious problems in favor of new strategic passages that often whorled into darker, noisier territory. Eventually Miles Davis, Coltrane and Mingus found themselves expanding into that arena; lured by the shapelessness of expression that created such astoundingly complex and situational music. Coltrane explored a free form duo that soared past modalism, into blazing aural mysticism. Miles rode two different paths at once, searing his electrified demonic fusion to wild cut and paste edits made in the studio with producer Teo Macero. Mingus ably folded the more secular Loft Jazz sound into his own rambunctious gospel of work, bringing free jazz accolade Don Pullen into his last great band.
Monk preceded them all without removing the melodic slant from his sound. That’s his erudition. That he could see the need for new tonal shapes and harmonics and still somehow execute them without fully transferring into discordance does not discount free jazz, but instead compliments Monk’s ability to set tension and freshen melody without divorcing himself from the tunefulness of his past.
Late jazz critic Martin Williams noted a renaissance of appreciation for Monk back in 1959, a significant year for jazz. ‘59 was the year Miles Davis released Kind of Blue, John Coltrane delivered his Giant Steps, and Mingus offered not one but two landmark recordings, Blues and Roots and Ah-Um. It was also the year saxman Charlie Rouse and Monk embarked upon their union. Williams explained Monk’s return to the limelight. “Monk was a virtuoso of the basic materials of jazz: time, meter, accent, space… Monk was what no jazzman before him had ever been: after more than fifteen years, still an innovator and legitimate experimenter.” Monk didn’t just play the music. Monk wasthe music. He’d allow the sound of stride greats like Waller and Tatum push him toward his catechism. Monk’s sense of altered timing and his inclusion of minor keys in major values expanded not just his vocabulary, but everyone else’s, too. Still, his acclaim was never universal. Miles Davis was so put out by Monk’s style of comping, he made the pianist lay out when Davis took his solo on “Bag’s Groove.” The pianist Oscar Peterson liked to tell people he knew more about the keyboard than Monk ever did. Perhaps in retribution, when played a Peterson side during his Downbeat blindfold test (a musician was blindfolded and asked to identify a group of recordings) Monk simply asked for directions to the bathroom.
By the early 60s, Monk’s popularity was reaching crescendo. Of the songs from the Copenhagen show presented on Mønk, the three Monk compositions and two standards were pieces Monk revived and re-arranged with this band. The trio of Rouse, Dunlop and Ore worked remarkably well within their leader’s precise constructions. They frolic in Monk’s quirks, buffing the music to new resonance.
The opener, Bye-Ya, is a wide-eyed ornament of Monk’s style that sets the show’s pace. Kicking off with a drum solo is typical of Monk’s enduring invention. After a few quick bars of Dunlop’s drums, the four men stakeout their corner of Monk’s sound. Over the course of the evening, each of them expands and contracts through the intricacies of the music with absolute deftness.
Monk’s idiosyncratic personality — he often danced on the stage as the other musicians worked the music — is apparent here. And that’s a difficult task to capture, one missing from the previous live recordings featuring this quartet. The audio quality is remarkably lucid across the entire performance. As the band wends its way through the music, it’s easy to imagine Monk bobbing around the stage, poking at the air and nodding along while Rouse solos.
Nutty starts with a taut series of keyboard jabs, followed by the band’s more blended response. For nine and a half minutes, this is the sound of completion. Rubbery one moment, staccato the next, the song is.
I’m Getting Sentimental Over You is a standard best associated with Tommy Dorsey’s big band, and Ella Fitzgerald. Here the song is a testimonial to Monk’s career, showcasing the music that inspired his unconventionality. Rouse comes particularly alive here, ably challenging Monk’s lead, until a subtle drizzle of piano flecks the cadence, reminding Rouse who’s boss. Coming out of Monk’s solo, the quartet bring the song to its conclusion with matchless elegance.
Body and Soul
The band lays out as Monk slides into Body and Soul, another standard. As the song streams toward its complicated midsection, Monk elongates the structural changes that occur within the bridge (sometimes referred to as “the bridge like no other”) and expands them. He’s shading the most onerous areas of the song with his odd punctuation, areas that rarely got this kind of exposure. Where other performers sought to execute the complications of the bridge and just make it out with the song still intact, Monk steeps in the difficulties. He elongates them, and bathes in abstractions he floats above them. Nearing the close, Monk rearranges the meter, runs a couple of shivers up and down the keys, and ends the song with a dashing trill. It’s hypnotic. You get the feeling that everyone gathered around was lost there with the musician in a space/time continuum he created.
The last song is the eponymous track from Monk’s Dream. Monk chose these musicians precisely for the revival of this song, previously recorded in the early fifties. Live, they shake and wind and elevate it. Everyone shoots into their cues as Monk plays the askew notes he built his career upon. Rouse banishes any implied sense of timidity, while Ore and Dunlop press the song into a remarkable tonal cadence. Monk takes the second solo. Rouse lays out, and the band becomes a trio gingerly supporting Monk’s bounding but ephemeral music. Rouse comes back in and the entire group fuse the last seconds of the piece into a brilliant reclamation of Monk’s distinct voicings. It literally shimmers.
Nowhere near as lengthy as Mingus’s Jazz in Detroit/ Strata Concert Gallery, not as stage setting as Coltrane’s recent Both Directions at Once, Mønk is the best live take of this band. They are a unit on par with Coltrane’s great quartet and Miles Davis’s 60s quintet. This recording puts Monk’s ingenuity on full display as the band swings into its oscillating chromatic apex. Gearbox Records should be applauded for the design, sound, and general care they’ve put into the release. It rivals Universal’s 2018 Coltrane release, delivering intelligent attractive packaging along with pristine sound recording, all while operating on a budget much smaller than Universal’s. They have done Monk and friends justice.
Henry Cherry is Jazz Critic at Riot Material magazine. He is also a photographer, writer and documentary filmmaker who lives in Hollywood. Mr. Cherry’s work has appeared in Huck, PBS, OC Weekly, Los Angeles Review of Books, Artillery, and LA Weekly. A documentary film on master jazz musician Henry Grimes is in the works. For contact information go to his website- www.henrycherry.com