Monk on Columbia

Monk’s Columbia albums aren’t exactly critical darlings. The majority of them were made with working quartets including tenor Charlie Rouse and such bassists and drummers as John Ore, Butch Warren, Frankie Dunlop, and Ben Riley - no wide lineup variety as there was at Riverside. Also, the number of new compositions started to dry up, thus the repeat appearances of several older Monk tunes and standards. And Monk’s piano style had been distilled to an essence that was, if not predictable, then at least less daring than it used to be, with some exceptions. He settled on personnel, material, and style, none of which was close to the forefront of contemporary jazz. The once modern Thelonious took up a holding pattern.

Well, so what. I think the Columbias are full of solid swing, classic compositions, and lots of terrific Spheroid piano. I hear the music as a celebration of the musical world Monk had built for himself, and I’ll accept the redundancies as excuses to search for nuance. There are plenty of fresh moments that equal the best of his previous recordings. Columbia/Legacy began reissuing these single titles at the start of the new century, and all of them have great sound, some worthwhile bonus tracks, and good liner essays.

Ah yes, Charlie Rouse, tenor saxophone. There’s no doubt he’s limited in comparison to star Monk tenors like Rollins, Coltrane, and Griffin. Rouse has a couple of ubiquitous pet licks: the accented bop-BA-dah-da-dah phrase that then hits a descending scale of a bar or two, and the quick run that goes up four notes and slithers downward like a snake in a pinball machine. Almost every uptempo solo includes one or both, although Rouse can get through a ballad without them. A lot of Rouse’s other playing sounds like he’s marking time, never stretching far beyond shortsighted phrases. So yes, he has limited range, and normally I’d turn away from autopilot soloing like his, but it actually works for Monk’s music at this time. For one thing, notice how Rouse frequently refers to the melody of a given tune? That’s a clue that he’s playing a role - he’s figured out how Monk thinks and what Monk wants. No doubt Rouse can play more than he lets on, but I suspect he curtailed his lines in order to maintain a consistent group sound over the long haul. Also, Monk’s rhythm sections of the ‘60s maintain a steady level of swing, so Rouse can’t really try to “conduct” them into other grooves. His chirpy tenor thus becomes an instrumental extension of Monk, and when the duo does have it together, it works.

Monk’s Dream
Oct-Nov. 1962

On the debut for the new label, the material is largely retrospective but the freshness of the performances turns the page, as if Thelonious is saying, “This is how it’s going to be, starting now.” It’s one of Monk’s most spirited albums, built upon tour-hardened chemistry with Charlie Rouse (tenor sax), John Ore (bass), and Frankie Dunlop (drums). The music is clean and light yet retains Monk’s invincible angles, and the quartet plays with confidence, unlike the uncertainty that plagued some of Monk’s earlier sessions with one-off groups.

The title track and “Bye-Ya” are both compositions from the Prestige days. The uplift of “Monk’s Dream” is like a motivational speech translated into a post-bop matrix, while “Bye Ya” rides four cylinders of enthusiasm, Rouse especially. “Blues Five Spot” captures the essence of the blues in economical piano motifs. The other 12-bar, “Bolivar Blues”, sanitizes the Riverside original and features an outstanding Monk solo, two choruses of which involve superimposed triplet accents. It’s one of a handful of Monk solos that puts a smile on my face every time.

“Bright Mississippi”, the only new composition, drops syncopated cluster bombs over the chord changes to “Sweet Georgia Brown”. Like the other tracks, “Bright Mississippi” relies on simple swing from the rhythm duo, and now is as good a place as any to praise Frankie Dunlop. I hear him as a lighter Art Blakey, dropping distinctive accents over a steady pulse. Dunlop seems to drum a bar at a time, always filling in the right place, answering Monk or propelling the tune with little boots. This is all Monk wanted, even as the decade progressed and drummers got more and more liberated from basic swing. And in truth, it’s all Monk needed to get his points across.

There are also some standards in the mix. Monk takes both “Just a Gigolo” and “Body and Soul” as unaccompanied piano features. He gets quite involved in the latter, rebuilding the old song into a block of city architecture. “Sweet and Lovely” begins with a few choruses of piano, bass, and drums before Rouse joins in. At eight minutes, the track is pleasant if not special, and it closes the curtain on the main program.

The alternate takes on the 2002 remaster are pretty valuable, like a compact “Monk’s Dream” that has better solos than the master take. On the master of “Bright Mississippi”, Rouse lets each chord sit for a beat before starting a phrase, clearly scouting the tune, but his confidence increases in the alternate, and Monk is great in both versions. Rouse also shines in the “Bolivar Blues” alternate, while Monk is best heard in the master. Monk’s Dream was the first Monk album I ever heard in full, so that’s why I often think of it as a great introductory album, as it worked for me. Having lived with the rest of his catalog for over a decade, I’m still convinced that it is one of his best titles.

Criss Cross
Feb-Mar. 1963

Another spirited, retrospective program from the same quartet. The group is in tidy form (Monk and Rouse limit their solos to two choruses each) on this mini-jukebox of Monk classics, and so vivid is the kaleidoscope that one might not notice the unusual absence of any blues. A definitive “Hackensack” kicks off with an archetypical Rouse solo that includes no less than four of his favored licks. “Rhythm-a-ning” is reduced to a tantalizing thesis, tamer than the era’s live renditions. “Think of One”, like the older tune “Thelonious”, repeats one note over a series of changing chords, lifted by Dunlop’s Latin beats on the bridge, and my favorite reading of “Crepuscule With Nellie” is found here, a Monk masterpiece if there ever was one.

A couple of Blue Note classics are also revived, despite Rouse not having a full handle on either melody. “Criss Cross” excises the last two bars of its original bridge, which is weird because that quick passage was the tune’s punchline and recharged the return to the A section. However, Monk hadn’t forgotten those two bars, because he uses them to introduce this version - go figure. Anyway, listen to Dunlop expertly punctuate the spaces in the opening theme. Rouse barely hangs on to the melody of “Eronel” yet delivers a sophisticated abstraction of it in his solo.

Monk plays earnestly on all of the above and takes extended solos in two standards. The unaccompanied “Don’t Blame Me” emits an after-hours glow, while the trio performance of “Tea for Two” is crisper than the previous Riverside version, the old melody succumbing to the gravity of Monk’s circle of fourths platform. Say what anyone might about the Columbia period being less than progressive, Monk’s playing is as extroverted as ever, at least so far.

Appended to the initial CD issue in the ‘90s, and retained in this 2003 reissue, is a version of “Pannonica” with much to enjoy in Rouse’s improvisation. Bonus tracks include alternates of “Tea for Two” (not as sharp) and “Eronel” (some fluffed notes). There’s also one of my all-time favorites, “Coming on the Hudson”. The melody creates an interesting mood, perhaps waiting for that boat to come. It climbs up, pauses, offers a resolution that phonetically fits the title, then the bridge echoes that phrase twice over three and a half bars. In the end, we continue craning our necks with the chords - looking, hoping - in a cycle of expectancy. I’m so glad they appended this track to the reissue, because it makes a good album all the better.

Monk in Tokyo
May 1963

The quartet puts a polished foot forward in this Sankei Hall concert. Along with Rouse, Dunlop, and new bassist Butch Warren, Monk is sharp as a tack, surely primed to make a good impression in his first Japan appearance. The feeling was mutual - the audience greets the tunes with cheers, obviously excited to hear Monk in person. They’re rewarded with an energetic set that still serves today as an excellent sample of Monk in action.

Disc 1: “Straight No Chaser” settles the band into a hip groove and grants everyone a solo. Rouse is a little off-center in “Pannonica”, maybe because the tune has gained a nervous edge as it’s aged. Alone, Monk confesses that he’s “Just a Gigolo”, then the quartet resumes swinging operations in “Evidence”. “Jackie-ing” is set aflame by Rouse and the hard Warren/Dunlop drive. “Bemsha Swing” is as hot as it ever was or will be. These last two tracks together occupy less than ten minutes and represent the pinnacle of the show’s energy. The first set ends with a chorus of “Epistrophy”.

Disc 2: I admit I’m not a fan of the song “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” - maybe due to overexposure on various Monk albums - but Rouse, Monk, and Dunlop all lift this performance above the norm. Following that is a stretched out “Hackensack”, and then the quartet downshifts into a relaxed “Blue Monk”, where Rouse issues a subtle solo and Monk barely plays the blues at all, opting instead for abstract phrases and clusters. He also rips a humorous interjection into Warren’s bass solo. A full-length “Epistrophy” closes the show with teasing bits from sax and piano.

The concert flows well from start to finish and the sound is great. I don’t know why Monk in Tokyo often gets overlooked because at least half of it captures a definitive Monk vibe.

At Newport 1963 and 1965
July 1963 & 1965

The 2002 reissue collects the (previously available) five tracks from the 1963 gig, and as a generous bonus, it tacks on four previously unreleased 1965 tracks that no one even knew existed until Orrin Keepnews did some scrounging in the Columbia vaults. Charlie Rouse is present for both dates, while the rhythm sections differ.

July 3, 1963. With Warren and Dunlop. The set starts with “Criss Cross”, looser than the studio take from earlier in the year and less pristinely recorded. Kudos to Monk for also calling “Light Blue”, a relative rarity whose soft lurches and tumbles don’t make it an obvious choice for a festival gig. Then the untoward happens: trad clarinetist Pee Wee Russell is trotted out (at the whim of organizer George Wein) to sit in on “Nutty” and “Blue Monk”. The idea was to inject some variety and spice into the set, but the quartet, two songs in, was already doing fine enough in that regard, thank you very much. Russell is tentative in the ensembles and his solos are feeble, despite the fact that these are basic tunes. Monk’s accompaniment in “Blue Monk” grabs as much attention as the clarinet solo happening above it. Not quite the jazz event Wein was hoping for. But no harm, no foul, and the quartet closes with “Epistrophy”. I’m not thrilled by the set overall, maybe because of Russell’s interrupting presence on the two longest tracks, but it’s a solid hour’s work.

July 5, 1965. Jumping forward in our chronology, bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley are the rhythm team. This archival discovery is worth celebrating because it’s got 35 minutes of great music. Things begin with a good version of “Off Minor”, followed by a fine “Ruby My Dear”, even if Rouse isn’t any match for Hawkins or Coltrane. “Hackensack” is solidly dispatched (don’t miss Monk’s allusion to “Bright Mississippi”) and a full-length “Epistrophy” closes the set with possibly the most interesting solo Rouse ever played on that piece - tough low register lines and courageous higher phrases.

The real story of the ‘65 gig is Monk, though. His solos impress (like the rise ‘n fall fugue in “Epistrophy”) and his accompaniment adds new twists to the tunes. He tinkers in the lower reaches of the keyboard behind Rouse in “Off Minor” and drops provocative clusters across the beat of “Hackensack”. As Rouse investigates “Epistrophy”, Monk configures strange syncopated patterns in support. So it’s not a case of “Ho-hum, more live Monk.” On the contrary, Newport 1965 finds him back in the lab.

Big Band and Quartet In Concert

Comparisons to the Town Hall concert of 1959 are inevitable, and fair - same arranger (Hall Overton), same size band (ten pieces), same imperturbable leader. This Philharmonic show is somewhat more confident than the earlier effort, but it also has minor performance flaws and some empty improvisational stretches. The principal soloists are Thad Jones (cornet), Phil Woods (alto sax), Charlie Rouse (tenor), and Monk on piano, with the rhythm team of Butch Warren and Frankie Dunlop.

Solid victories occur in “I Mean You” and a gleaming “Four In One” that culminates in Monk’s original Blue Note piano solo scored for horns. The new tune “Oska T” is nothing more than a bouncing vamp and friendly tagline played repetitively. The quartet performs two pieces by themselves, “Played Twice” and “Misterioso”, the latter becoming more soulful than usual. Monk is typically mischievous throughout the show, reticent and overflowing by turns, and he delivers a nice solo version of “Darkness on the Delta”.

My main reservation with this double-disc set has to do with errant tuning and timing. A couple of Jones’ cornet solos noticeably flounder, and often one or more horns veer off-pitch in the ensemble parts. By pursuing tight-interval flavors in his charts, Hall Overton leaves little room for error, and one sloppy bar can ruin a tune’s decorum. “Light Blue”, to put it bluntly, sounds like a joke, “Evidence” has questionable moments, and even the short renditions of “Epistrophy” make me cringe. So while this set has its upsides, I don’t feel it deserves the unqualified positive assessment it usually receives. Big band Monk can be risky.

It’s Monk’s Time
Jan-Mar. 1964

The third studio record exhumes a couple of original obscurities (“Brake’s Sake”, “Shuffle Boil”), premiers a new one (the cheery, canon-like “Stuffy Turkey”), and adds three standards. It also introduces drummer Ben Riley, who follows the standing orders for constant swing. The leadoff “Lulu’s Back in Town”, one of the best tracks of Monk’s Columbia period, has an arch-like structure: a lengthy solo piano intro (a performance unto itself) leads into a full quartet jam and returns to solo piano for the coda. The other two oldies, “Memories of You” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It”, are taken by Monk alone, and the former wins a blue ribbon. I love how he can radically refashion a song from the inside and revere its structure at the same time.

“Stuffy Turkey” is a clever little number, well played, but the other original material contains some awkward moments. “Shuffle Boil” is prime Monk, based on permutations of a simple melodic cell over varying chords and a set bass figure, but unfortunately the high melody notes are just beyond Rouse’s comfortable reach. If Monk had let Rouse take his sax part an octave lower, it would have been a perfect track, since the solos are quite decent. “Brake’s Sake”, not the most inspiring of themes, goes on far too long, with Rouse hung out to dry in his solo (hear his microtonal bleating at one point). These are only minor complaints about otherwise fine cuts.

The bonus tracks include an intriguing alternate of the solo Gershwin and a full-length “Epistrophy” that first surfaced on a ‘80s compilation entitled Always Know. The alternate of “Shuffle Boil” is damaged goods and should have been left on the shelf. Not the record to start with, but on the strengths of “Lulu” and “Memories of You”, eventually necessary.

Mar & Oct. 1964

With only one new original amidst a menu of standards, this is a safe album for the most part, but also an enjoyable one thanks to Monk’s playing. The new piece “Teo” actually dates from the It’s Monk’s Time sessions. It consists of a 24-bar structure (sort of an elongated half-blues) with a chord-based melody, and Rouse does well with it. The rest of the tracks come from October and bring new bassist Larry Gales aboard, who with drummer Ben Riley would remain Monk’s rhythm battery for the next few years. Riley trades Frankie Dunlop’s sharpness for a smoother swing, though he can get fancy when the music allows.

The whole quartet is aces on Gershwin’s “Liza”, once done in trio form by Monk, now with added Rouse. Monk’s solo includes a complex sequence customized to the chord changes and features some boogie-woogie to boot. Lots of joy crammed into four and a half minutes. “Just You Just Me” is a similar feelgood swinger that allows two tenor solos. One of the bonus tracks is a hybrid of “Just You Just Me” and “Liza”, but as fun as that is, the separate renditions are better.

“April in Paris” is a lot less evocative than Monk’s solo rendition from ’59; here, it’s a sad, lengthy reverie for quartet. Monk takes Berlin’s “I Love You” by himself, and once again his solo piano track becomes a highlight of the album. “Children’s Song”, a quasi original, backs a familiar toddler melody with light bop chords and works, oddly enough. What doesn’t work is Rouse on “Pannonica”. The bridge is always a dangerous area for him, and on this version, he falls out of tune. I don’t blame him entirely for this, because it was Monk who insisted on Rouse playing in a particular register, even if Rouse knew the higher lines invited error. Anyway, once past the sickly theme, the solos are nice, and Riley’s fluttering brushwork gives the tune a new color. The alternate take has similar ensemble problems.

Bill Evans wrote the original LP liner essay praising Monk’s individuality. That’s really what the album is about, when the leader is tearing through “Liza”, or immersed in “I Love You”, or lining up the moody intervals of “Teo”. I don’t know how to rate the album as a whole, but the three tracks I just named are worth owning.

Live at the It Club
Oct-Nov. 1964

Happy Halloween, angels. The double-disc 1998 edition restores the majority of what was recorded during a two-night stand in Los Angeles with Monk, Rouse, Gales, and Riley. If the Tokyo concert album presents the quartet in formal evening attire, the It Club performances are more casual. I hesitate to say “warts and all,” as there aren’t a lot of warts here, but it’s open to atmosphere and inspiration as club gigs are wont to be. The group tackles a variety of tunes, some more familiar than others, with no repetitions save the set-closing “Epistrophy” theme.

On the inspirational side are zealous renditions of “Bright Mississippi” and “Rhythm-a-ning”, the latter thorough and definitive. Speaking of rhythm changes, dig the groove of “Nutty”, and for solid blues look no further than Monk’s sculptures in “Blue Monk”, “Blues Five Spot”, or “Bolivar Blues”. “Well You Needn’t” sparkles. Rarities include “All the Things You Are”, the neurotic original “Gallop’s Gallop”, and the recent “Teo” gets a twirl (nice, but I prefer the studio take).

Almost every tune follows the same routine (head, solos from everybody, head) and hovers around the ten-minute mark. Rouse blows a bunch; Monk usually supports him for a chorus or two and then drops out for the next few. At his best, Rouse rides the Gales-Riley energy into smart, distilled phrases. He can be clever (fitting Coltrane’s “Syeeda’s Song Flute” over “Well You Needn’t”) and entertaining (his “Rhythm-a-ning” bag of tricks). And he’s always aware of the given tune, as in “Misterioso”, where his chromatic lines refer to the theme rather than just riffing anonymously in B-flat. At his least inspired, Rouse makes Monk’s music sound claustrophobic, as if the changes leave little room to operate. Meanwhile, Monk, through bold use of rhythm and space, makes the tunes feel wide open, however many chords they may contain. We hear a lot of Gales and Riley, too. The quartet doesn’t have much in the way of dynamics, but they’ve got personality, and they’re bloody consistent.

Monk’s pianistic creativity goes up and down, and by this point he’s got subroutines ingrained in certain tunes. Now and again, he pulls out something new, like the wandering lines in “Straight No Chaser” and unpredictable accents on the upbeat pieces. And for some reason, coming out of the drum solo in “Evidence”, Monk starts playing “Straight No Chaser”, then jumps back into “Evidence”. Did he zone out, or was he just goofing? (Ah, but see the next album.) Monk’s accompaniment is often just as interesting as his solos, and Rouse always sounds a little better with Monk prompting him. Overall, this set is honest about the quartet’s strengths and limitations, and it’s one of the most essential Monk titles.

Live at the Jazz Workshop
Nov. 1964

Two days after Los Angeles, the quartet was in San Francisco and tapes rolled again. This is exactly like the It Club album, two nights of work on two CDs. A handful of the tunes are different, and to compare performances, I’d say the Workshop has higher highs and lower lows than the It Club. The lows would include the sloppy execution of “Thelonious” and “Misterioso” on the second night, but the highs win out. Also, the tune lengths are more varied (fewer extensive bass and drum solos), and Monk tosses in a couple of solo piano pieces (“Don’t Blame Me” and “Memories of You”).

Highlights from the first night include “Hackensack”, a studious midtempo “Round Midnight”, and The “Evidence” That Becomes “Rhythm-a-ning”, one of the set’s incidents of hazardous inspiration. Another one: Monk bursts into Rouse’s solo on “Bright Mississippi” and just takes over; Riley intensifies his swing to match. But as Monk and Riley lock into the red-hot groove, the whole tune implodes meekly, and not three minutes have passed by since it began. In the second “Evidence” of the night, Monk again steals the floor from Rouse and grandly quotes “Well You Needn’t”. Riley, perhaps not wanting to have another “Evidence” hijacked into a different song, elbows Monk out of the way with a sudden drum solo. Rouse then interrupts Riley with the “Evidence” theme, insuring that they finished what they started. So let it not be said that this quartet played everything by rote. Sometimes, you don’t know what they’re intending to play at all. Sounds like they were trying to get in sync on the first night.

The second night/disc has the aforementioned gaffes (“Misterioso” never really recovers) amidst firm terrain like “Blue Monk”, “Well You Needn’t”, and another “Round Midnight”. Larry Gales plays an outgoing bass solo in a great version of “Bright Mississippi” and cues fours with Riley, not a commonplace occurrence in Monk’s recordings of the day. Gales also goes to town on “Nutty”, a tune that I’ve always found a little annoying but that often inspires crafty playing.

So is it possible to own both It Club and Jazz Workshop and not be overwhelmed by repetition? Yes, but you have to be the sort of person who doesn’t blush at abundance.

Solo Monk
Oct 1964 - March 1965

Monk’s love of older standards hadn’t diminished at all, thus the anachronism of hearing the likes of “Dinah” and “These Foolish Things” in the midst of a decade that had other priorities. More so than his earlier solo LPs, Solo Monk feels like a straight recital, a time capsule of songs and styles gone by, filtered through Monk’s internal processor, of course.

Stride is a prevalent element in the playing, from the irresistible saloon boogie of “Dinah”, “I’m Confessin”, “Sweet and Lovely”, and a few other pieces. Each tune sticks to a rock solid momentum, most of which are of the simple one-two beat. Even “I Should Care” is full of motion compared to the desolate 1957 solo reading. Two original blues sketches: “North of the Sunset” comes and goes pretty quickly, and “Monk’s Point” uses a “bent” note in its theme. (Monk holds a particular key down while releasing a different one. The overtones blend and separate, hence the bending illusion.)

“Ruby My Dear” is darn near definitive; I guess if you need a band version, go to the Coltrane, but this solo rendition is pretty comprehensive, and a little better than the version on Alone in San Francisco. “Ask Me Now” is another self-sufficient ballad crystallization. The bonus tracks include a faithful recreation of “Introspection” (reminding us of the brilliant originality of Monk’s Blue Note years) and “Darn That Dream”, along with seven alternates from the main program. It’s like having two albums on one disc.

In comparison to other solo Monk albums, these performances sound more like calculations than discoveries, not a bad thing, but I miss the inspirational unfolding of Monk’s brain-to-fingers circuitry found on the Riverside solo efforts. One thing that’s always mentioned regarding Solo Monk’s standards is parody, as if the only reason Monk chose them was to make fun of them (and their historical styles). No doubt Monk brings humor to his playing, from little gestures to broad send-ups, but I think there’s a genuine enthusiasm for every song. Otherwise, why record two takes of a joke?

Straight, No Chaser
Nov. 1966 & Jan. 1967

Not to be confused with the soundtrack to the film of the same name. This album doesn’t grab the listener with lots of catchy tunes, but the quartet is tight and the improvising is first rate. Charlie Rouse in particular raises his playing to another level in one of his finest efforts with Monk. The 1996 reissue restores several edits that were made to the original LP - necessary at the time because the quartet explored most of these pieces at length - and a couple of bonus cuts are added, too.

“Locomotive” runs a wee bit slower than the 1954 original, and Rouse winds fluidly though a long-lined solo with nary a crutch. If you spend enough time with Monk/Rouse in the ‘60s, you can tell when the tenor is running on automatic, or when he’s wafting on the sweet breeze of Unfettered Inspiration, and “Locomotive” is a prime example of the latter. He plays with sensitivity on Ellington’s “I Didn’t Know About You” (aka “Sentimental Lady”), a ballad that the whole group crafts most tenderly. In “Straight No Chaser”, Rouse’s choruses always begin with a new premise, while Monk, after a couple of decades, still hasn’t exhausted this blues’ possibilities. It’s as good as (or better than) the several live versions from the time.

At nearly 17 minutes, “Japanese Folk Song” epitomizes the quartet’s new “stretch out and blow” studio approach. The dour melody, combined with a descending bassline in the first bar, is like a vague excerpt of “Round Midnight”, and it suggests a lot of improvising ideas for Rouse (who takes two solos), Monk, Gales, and Riley. With the hypnotic plod, minor harmony, and long running time, this track ought to be a snoozer, but it isn’t. The two solo piano pieces go to different places. “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” ambles on for several minutes, and even though Monk comes to the same conclusion for every chorus, he summons enough variations that it’s like sitting on the porch with a wizened storyteller. “This is My Story, This is My Song” is a brief hymn, touching enough to bring a tear to the eye.

“We See” dates from the same Prestige session as “Locomotive”. (Notice on the Columbia albums that the revived tunes tend to come in pairs from the original sessions: “Monk’s Dream” and “Bye-Ya” from Prestige; “Criss Cross” and “Eronel” from Blue Note; “Brake’s Sake” and “Shuffle Boil” from a mid-50s album with Gigi Gryce.) “We See” gets off to a weird start with Rouse playing an inverted counterpoint to the melody, and in his solo, Rouse always seems to be a bar behind the tune. Monk does okay, but this version doesn’t compete with the original. Another “off” performance is the bonus track “Green Chimneys”, which makes its proper debut on the upcoming Underground. Previously unreleased, this is sort of a rehearsal version with a groove that never catches fire and a piano solo that empties into nothingness.

Two lesser moments aside, Straight No Chaser is a fine album. You know, this far along in the reviews, I can agree that the quartet albums of the Columbia period all had the same sound, but up close, each has unique qualities. This one’s about Rouse, the road-honed rhythm section, and the rare temperament of “I Didn’t Know About You”. And where the hell else will you hear “Kojo No Tsuki”?

Dec. 1967 & Feb. 1968

Monk’s final small-band effort for Columbia boasts four new compositions and lots of variety. At its best, the album restores Monk as a creative force, yet parts of it drift along rather lazily. The remaster restores edits to the original LP and adds three fine alternate takes. Charlie Rouse appears on three tracks, all of them new tunes. “Ugly Beauty” has the distinction of being Monk’s only waltz, and despite some hesitancy in the performance, it is indeed beautiful. The “ugliness” comes from tart piano voicings that underpin the lyrical melody. This is one of the restored tracks, and as such, it rambles a bit through multiple sax and bass solos. The bonus alternate (take 4) has a more focused solo structure. “Boo Boo’s Birthday” also comes in two takes and features ingenious melodic twists within a 21-bar form. The best compliment to pay the piece is that you don’t notice the odd number of measures unless you count, because the melody is so inevitably developed. Then there’s “Green Chimneys”, a syncopated riff over a two-hued (minor to major) harmonic structure. The deep groove sustains for 13 minutes with fine Rouse and Monk solos and an outstanding bass break from Larry Gales.

Rouse absent, the piano trio handles the old linchpin “Thelonious” (the alternate take 3 is snappier than the master), a laid-back reading of “Easy Street”, and the new “Raise Four” blues. It’s tough to think of “Raise Four” as a full-blown composition since it just takes a familiar Monk lick and repeats it over blues changes. Even the title hammers home the obviousness of the raised fourth lick, which is more effective as a tactical flavor and not a neurotic closed loop. Nevertheless, Monk’s solos on the trio cuts have varying degrees of spark. Then comes an objectionable aberration, a vocal version of “In Walked Bud”. Nothing personal against Jon Hendricks, you understand, but his inane lyric and scatting (!) undermine the instrumental dignity of what Monk is about as far as I’m concerned. With a great Monk solo and a cooking groove, why didn’t they just make “Bud” another trio performance? It would have been a highlight of the album; instead, you have to wear a cringe bib.

Underground doesn’t really gel as a program, although I suspect I say that because Hendricks is such a wrench in the machine. But the quartet tracks are excellent and even “Easy Street” is cool if you’re in a lazy enough mood.

Monk Alone: The Complete Columbia Solo Studio Recordings 1962-8

As the title says, these two discs contain Solo Monk and all of the solo piano tracks that appeared on the quartet albums, along with alternate takes and some rarities that popped up on compilations. When released in 1998, this was an essential purchase for Monk lovers, although the ensuing reissues of individual albums outdated it somewhat. And it’s not even complete anymore. For example, it doesn’t have take 1 of “Body and Soul” that graced the Monk’s Dream remaster. It does have a couple of exclusive alternates, but nothing that changes what we otherwise know about Monk’s solo conceptions.

For me, the solo pieces are most effective within the group album context as diversions, etudes, or changes of atmosphere. Nonetheless it’s a classy collection for those who want all of these tracks under one roof, or for those who don’t have all of the individual titles, and it’s got a good liner essay from Dick Katz.

The Columbia Years 1962-8

A three disc set including selections from all of the above, sometimes in alternate takes, along with a few exclusive items. Peter Keepnews’ booklet essay (father Orrin compiled the set) addresses the tired issue of the “sameness” of Monk’s Columbia records, and the tracklisting puts witnesses for Variety on the stand. Thus we receive some big band and solo piano selections (good), and novelties like the Hendricks “Bud” karaoke, the Pee Wee Russell sit-in at Newport, and the Oliver Nelson charts from the muzak-y Monk’s Blues (not so good). The bulk of the set documents the quartets in the studio and onstage, and far from requiring apology, it provides a lesson in consistency and swing. One can carp about omissions - where are the title tracks for Monk’s Dream and Criss Cross? How about “Liza”? But then there are honorable inclusions like the underrated “Played Twice” and the semi-obscure “Coming on the Hudson”. (Both of which premiered on Riverside.) Rouse is ever present, except when Thelonious is at his onliest on the solo pieces, and yes, they picked good ones from that crop.

This doesn’t substitute for owning three or four of the better Columbias, but it covers the general gist of Monk’s tenure at the label. The Keepnews men will always hold Monk’s non-Riverside recordings in suspect esteem, even as they oversee loving compilations like this. Better for the listener to tune out the condescension and dig the pizzazz of Monk’s ‘60s music, which doesn’t need any salvaging or ‘official’ endorsement. What characterizes almost everything in this collection is the sound of joy and confidence, as if Monk had earthworked a mountain in the previous years and was now enjoying the elevated view.

(Trivia: O.K. wanted to begin this set with the first thing Monk recorded in a Columbia studio, take 1 of “Bye-Ya”. He discovered that the originally issued “Bye-Ya” (on Monk’s Dream) was actually a composite of two takes - one of Teo’s undetectable splices - and so Monk’s take 1 solo gets restored right off the bat. A few of the other quartet tracks are alternates as well.)

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