Monk has been called “the inventor of bop who never played it.” Of course he did play it as one of the head chemists in the bebop lab at Minton’s. But Parker and Gillespie beat him to the popular punch, and Monk - perhaps disenfranchised, as later interviews hint - emerged with his own style a few years later. Alfred Lion of Blue Note had the taste and foresight to sign Monk and record everything he had at the time. Not “let’s record some sides and see how they do,” but “let’s get all your compositions on tape.” Lion later did the same for such iconoclastic pianists as Herbie Nichols and Andrew Hill.
All of Monk’s Blue Note recordings were collected in a mid-90s box, but the later RVG editions of the two Genius volumes collate the bulk of the tracks and have much better sound. Monk’s session with Milt Jackson from 1948 can be found under the latter’s name as Wizard of the Vibes (also RVG’ed), and his appearance on two tunes with Sonny Rollins in 1957 (for Sonny’s Vol. 2 album) is also separately available.
Most of these tracks first emerged as 78s and later found their way to the two Genius LPs, whose original tracklists were slightly different than these reissues. For example, the RVG replica cover of Volume 1 lists “Misterioso” and “I Mean You”, both of which are now on Milt Jackson’s Wizard of the Vibes. Nonetheless, the reorganized Volume 1 CD is still full of groundbreaking music from three sessions. The short running times of the tracks constrain the solos but allows us to digest the brilliance of the compositions.
Only two Monk tunes are featured in the first session (October 15) for sextet. The anti-manifesto “Humph” turns “I Got Rhythm” chord changes into a circle of fourths starting on F-sharp (instead of the usual pattern in B-flat), with tart harmonized thirds in the melody, while the canonic bridge features prominent tritones. In many versions of the later “Rhythm-a-ning”, Monk would superimpose the “Humph” template of cycling fourths into his solo, so this is an important tune in a way, even though Monk never recorded it again. The other original is “Thelonious”, a one-note riffer with a vortex of descending seventh chords. This too would be a reference point in future solos: where applicable, Monk could drop the “Thelonious” melody lick into a few bars. These tunes are significant building blocks in Monk’s musical conceptions, and don’t miss the splash of stride in his “Thelonious” solo.
The non-Monk tracks from the first session, “Evonce” and “Suburban Eyes”, are mid-tempo boppers that sound very similar to each other. The horns get their say (Idrees Sulieman, Danny Quebec West, and Billy Smith), Monk plays well, and the melodies pass the time easily, yet these are just decent filler. Both are heard in two takes each.
The second session retains the rhythm team from the first (bassist Gene Ramey and drummer Art Blakey) for several trio numbers. The standards “April in Paris” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” spur idiosyncratic voicings and phrases from Monk, and both tunes would stay in his book for his entire career. However, the real attraction is the handful of classic original pieces. “Well You Needn’t” is a friendly, almost conversational line, and in what will be standard Monk practice, the final phrase from the A section becomes the main idea of the bridge, modulated through a new chord sequence. The alternate take shifts the melody’s starting position and thus changes its effect. The solos on both are full of short riffs and shapes, underlined by creeping counterpoint. Monk never just “runs the changes” - he paints them.
“Ruby My Dear” is my favorite Monk composition. This gorgeous ballad doesn’t have an independent melody; the top lines basically outline a majestic chord progression. Monk decorates the master take using the whole range of the piano, while the alternate is more subdued. On both, Blakey looks to engage the others in double time, but no one’s buying. “Ruby” stands as one of Monk’s supreme works.
The swinging “Off Minor” relies on pungent piano voicings, and the bridge detours into an unusual sequence. “Introspection” dives into a netherworld that only Monk could devise, so abstruse yet satisfying as it hits a major-chord denouement that’s hardly warned of in the tune’s rock-climbing exposition. The theme itself is so detailed that Monk’s solo can only embellish it.
The third session expands to quintet with Blakey still in the drum chair. Here we have the inaugural Monk performance of “Round Midnight”. It includes the portentous introduction written by Dizzy Gillespie, and the trumpet and alto provide moving harmonies behind the body of the song. It all sounds kind of awkward (attempting to be regal, but with the crown falling off the head), yet the arrangement slims down behind Monk’s piano improv. One of jazz’s greatest compositions, “Midnight” captures a sense of melancholy without cheapness.
Completing Volume 1’s ballad trifecta is “Monk’s Mood”, a sensual and sophisticated poem whose melody keeps expanding. “In Walked Bud” (a nod to Mr. Powell) plants ever-widening intervals and a flowering bridge over “Blue Skies” changes. “Who Knows” is a manic pastiche of bebop with an impressive top line. Less impressive are George Taitt’s trumpet solos on these takes, while Monk handles himself well at the speedy tempo.
Genius Volume 1 seats us in the nascent Monk world. The blowing value is patchy (Monk gets off the most intriguing solos) but the main thing to hear is how Monk takes jazz to a new frontier through innovative voicings and harmonic movement.
Volume 2 is even more challenging and is one of Monk’s most essential CDs. The first session from 1951 features altoist Sahib Shihab, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Al McKibbon, and drummer Art Blakey. The “hit” of the session is “Straight No Chaser”, a chromatic 12-bar classic that - like every other original blues as performed by Monk - is in B-flat. (Maybe that was just his “go to” key for blues.) “Straight No Chaser” is easy to assimilate, even though the melody phrases sneak across the bar lines in tricky ways. There’s a higher level of complexity in “Four In One”, where the opening phrase explodes through the first couple of bars, the second phrase raises the tension with whole-tone runs, and the third phrase resolves into a perky turnaround. The bridge is full of quick flourishes and the tune as a whole is demanding yet joyous.
More motivic development occurs in the masterpiece “Criss Cross”. The A section tinkers with a mordent figure and then moves on to a wide-interval lick that compresses itself. The bridge picks up on the zippy interval idea and ends with a turnaround that effectively resolves and renews the thematic game. “Criss Cross” as it stands here is perfect - every phrase serves a specific function - yet in future renditions, Monk would drop the last two bars of the bridge.
Also in the first session is a trio version of “Ask Me Now”, a rich ballad. The key to Monk’s ballads is the controlled suspense, where miniscule spaces are as effective as the decorative runs. The ebullient “Eronel” is the product of three different writers, and it sits well alongside anything Monk might have penned on his own. The soulful standard “Willow Weep for Me” turns out to be a feature for Jackson’s vibes. Milt and Monk both play wonderful mini-solos on all of these tracks from the first session.
The second session (featuring Kenny Dorham, Lou Donaldson, Lucky Thompson, and Max Roach) includes jarring three-horn arrangements of “Sixteen” and “Hornin’ In”, neither of which would remain in Monk’s repertoire. They’re fascinating tunes, especially the clustered theme of “Hornin’ In”. “Skippy” is a whirlwind pseudo-bop piece, and the theme alone proves that Monk could play with a flowing technique when needed. All three pieces are characteristic of the hard left turn Monk had taken from bebop’s mainstream. Fleshing out the assembly is the old chestnut “Carolina Moon”, which is given a rhythmic (6/4) and harmonic makeover, and “Let’s Cool One”, an affable original. Monk also takes the pop song “I’ll Follow You” under his investigative wing.