More Monk: Live, Etc.

The off-brands, the in between the cracks, the things that didn’t fit on the other pages.

With John Coltrane Live at Carnegie Hall
Nov. 29, 1957 / Blue Note/Thelonious Records

In the 1990’s, Blue Note released a private tape of a Monk/Coltrane club performance that contained astounding solos from Coltrane yet the recording quality was pretty awful. (The complete Monk Blue Note box at least managed to correct the speed.) That’s not the case with these Voice of America reels, whose discovery and release created quite a stir in 2005. It was heartwarming to see this CD shooting to the top of online sales charts, and historical enthusiasm is nothing to be ashamed of, not with a combination like Thelonious and Saint John. I admit being a little cautious just before it was released - “how amazing could it be?” Well, it’s wonderful. Good mono sound quality, great vibes from the quartet (including bassist Ahmed-Abdul Malik and underrated drummer Shadow Wilson), and a tasty tune selection.

The solos are not as extended as the wild club explorations of the Five Spot tape, probably because there were several other artists on the bill this evening and the quartet had limited time for their two sets. However, energy, personality, and swing are all present. The first set goes majestic with “Monk’s Mood” and “Crepuscule with Nellie”, while “Evidence”, “Nutty”, and “Epistrophy” swing concisely. The second set is looser and more exciting, including “Bye-Ya”, a “Sweet and Lovely” that breaks out of a sappy stroll into hectic double time, and “Blue Monk.”

The significance of Coltrane’s Monk stint is even more obvious in hearing this disc. Coltrane wastes no time tearing into the uptempo tunes, pulling us further inside pieces like “Evidence” and “Nutty”, and he often references the theme of the tune, if only as a way of keeping his place. His “Bye-Ya” solo is a highlight, and he takes “Sweet and Lovely” (in the double time section) and “Blue Monk” to places they’ve never been before or since. The internal workings of Monk’s music challenge any soloist and clearly bring a higher focus to Coltrane. He sometimes uses preconceived licks to jumpstart himself - in “Nutty”, for one - but at least the licks are unique to the player.

Meanwhile, Monk plays some exclusive wonders, like the way he decorates “Monk’s Mood” with jaw-dropping runs and flourishes in all ranges of the piano. These aren’t from his usual lexicon; I’ve never heard him play what he does behind Coltrane in “Mood” and “Crepuscule”. Once again, his hidden technique makes an appearance, graced with bits of humor, like the insertion of “52nd Street Theme” into “Crepuscule”. One of the liner essayists suggests that this is Monk’s response to (finally) playing a superior instrument, to which I would add that it’s probably also a case of him raising his game in a dignified concert setting. Monk takes a more familiar approach to the swinging tunes, but listen to his flexibility of time in the “Bye-Ya” solo.

Ahmed and Shadow do a fine support job, though neither gets solo space. Bottom line is that the CD lives up to the hype. Without being the most awesome jazz recording ever (let’s not get carried away), it’s pretty darn good, but if someone wants the Monk-Trane experience in a nutshell, I’d still send them to the studio track “Trinkle Tinkle”.

(Shame on the producers for including Amiri Baraka’s paranoid social commentary in the booklet’s series of essays. It’s stomach-turning to see such sludge associated with the music of great men, whose artistic motivations are far beyond what one critic might conceive in his psychological sewer. Anyway, thanks to the office paper cutter, my booklet is now one page lighter and cleaner.)

Monk In Paris: Live at the Olympia
March 7, 1965 / Thelonious Records

A 2003 release highly recommended for fans of Monk’s quartet with Charlie Rouse, Larry Gales, and Ben Riley, a group that can catch fire when it wants to. For example, the steaming version of “Rhythm-a-ning” is as balls-out as any live Monk recording ever; ditto the blast through “Bright Mississippi”. “I Mean You” is in tiptop shape, while “Well You Needn’t” isn’t quite. Peppering the setlist are two solo piano pieces (including a vibrant chorus of “April in Paris”) and the ubiquitous set closer “Epistrophy”.

The star of the show is Rouse. When he’s on, he’s ON, as in his outstanding “Rhythm-a-ning” solo. On nights like this, he proves himself perfectly suited to being Monk’s tenor man. Drummer Ben Riley also stands out. Maybe the drums are recorded differently, but he seems to be on a higher level of timbral awareness with the snare and rimshot colors, and the drum solo in “Bright Mississippi” is a tune unto itself. Bravo. Monk is in good form too, and for those who think he spent the 1960s in an autopilot world, hear him claim phrases from Rouse’s solos, as in “Bright Mississippi”. He gets across his ingrained ideas but is also responsive to the moment. The recording sounds good, notwithstanding a bass dropout in “Well You Needn’t”. On the bonus DVD, the group is a lot less energetic in three songs filmed in Oslo in 1966, although they play solidly. The only real problem with the DVD is that there’s no menu to select between the three tunes.

Some of the CD tracks, including “Rhythm-a-ning” and “I Mean You”, are identical to the versions found on the live Riverside album Monk in France, which was supposedly recorded in 1961! On the other hand, “Well You Needn’t” comes from a different performance, while “Bright Mississippi” does not appear on Monk in France at all. So take the 1965 recording date with a grain of confusing salt; my guess is that this Olympia disc pulls from different sources and maybe even features different rhythm sections. It was only on a later revisit to In France that I noticed this, particularly when “Rhythm-a-ning” got underway. In any case, the duplicated tracks sound better here.

Monk 'Round the World
May 1961 - Feb 1964 / Thelonious Records

A 2004 follow-up to the above title that threatens diminishing returns. Assuming the listener has already acquired the Columbia records and final Riversides, they’ve already lost count of the various Bemsha Swings and Rhythmanings from the Monk/Rouse pairing. So this CD will test anyone’s resilience against redundancy, but it’s not a pointless release, and new inspirations reside in some of the tracks. It also contrasts the rhythm section of John Ore (bass) and Frankie Dunlop (drums) with later players like Butch Warren, Larry Gales, and Ben Riley. And as silly as it might be to mention, the variety of sound sources puts the music in different lights. Compare the crystal clarity of the February 1964 Paris concert with the cloudy 1961 Copenhagen “Rhythm-a-ning” or the crackle-pop patina of “Hackensack” from an unidentified location.

The most valuable track for the diehard is “Ruby My Dear” from February 1964. From the same Paris concert, “Blue Monk” contains a notably squirrelly Rouse solo, and the tenor tears up “Bemsha Swing” from Stockholm in May 1961. On the other hand, there’s little from Rouse or Monk in “Hackensack” that one hasen’t already heard them play in several other versions, but the bass and drum solos are stronger than usual. Same goes for a ’61 “Rhythm-a-ning”, which I suppose was included simply because it’s an example of Ore and Dunlop taking it to town.

The bonus DVD captures the man in London in 1965 in near catatonic form, although he loosens up over the course of the three tracks. The group seems really stiff in front of the cameras on this and the previous DVD, even though the music is good. (To see a more animated Monk, watch the documentary film Straight No Chaser.)

The London Collection Vol. 1
Nov. 15, 1971 / 1201 Music

Toward the end of his recording career, Monk spent a couple of days in the studio waxing sides for Black Lion. This 1999 CD collects the solo piano pieces from the session. I still say that 1959’s Alone in San Francisco is his best solo collection, but what’s remarkable about these tracks is their refined touch and calmness - no bizarre melodrama, no overt humor, no mad lab experiments. Maybe after two decades of groundwork Monk reached a point of clarity, although the straightforward performances (not quite “normal” by anyone else’s standard) are still imbued with the quirks of his piano style.

Two of the standards are superior reruns of previous solo performances, “Nice Work if You Can Get It” and “Darn That Dream”. Three are new, including the nostalgic “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland” and “My Melancholy Baby”, and the soulful phrasing in an extended “Lover Man” gives us a different profile of Monk. Most interesting are the transformations of original pieces. The rousing “Little Rootie Tootie” becomes a smoother train ride (blaring whistles removed until the end) and “Jackie-ing” turns surprisingly lyrical in a slower tempo. But “Trinkle Tinkle” takes the cake. The manic theme masquerades as parlor classical when stated without rhythm at the beginning, while the rest of the tune takes place over midtempo stride. What, stride again? Yes, but it works incredibly well, and humor is admittedly part of the game if the listener knows the trail-hacking version with Coltrane. Monk adapts the changes to the one-two beat and brings out colors the tune had before.

Capping the album is the impromptu “Blue Sphere”, just over two minutes of the most joyous blues playing on any Monk record. That’s taking a lot into account in comparison, but it’s the only way to emphasize how perfect these few 12-bar choruses are. This disc shows that even up to his final playing days, Monk still had a surprise or two up his sleeve.

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