Monk on Prestige

Monk’s Prestige recordings can’t help but dwell in the surrounding shadows of his Blue Note blueprints and star-studded Riversides. Nonetheless, his two years with Prestige (1952-4) produced some classic music and excellent piano playing.

The Complete Prestige Recordings
Oct. 1944, Oct 1952-Dec 1954 / Prestige

Unpredictable, unsanitized, full of swing and angles, space shaping sound (and vise versa), Monk’s piano comes alive on these three discs. Following the essential compositional folios on Blue Note, the Prestiges take advantage of longer running times to emphasize improv as much as new tunes, and since Monk hadn’t yet bound his thesaurus of pet licks, a lot of his playing is still quite fresh. Several star sidemen add to the appeal of the music, and on the last disc, Monk plays sideman to Miles Davis. Let’s peek at the sessions in order.

10/19/44. Disc 1 begins with four quickie numbers led by Coleman Hawkins, almost like having a “warm-up act” to the box set. Hawk’s tenor is the main focus, and sideman Monk pokes his head out for brief solos. If nothing else, we hear that Monk’s sense of rhythm was already in place. The recorded sound carries the imperfections of the day, but Hawk’s charm is broadcast loud and clear.

10/15/52 and 12/18/52. Several tunes’ worth of trio work with Gary Mapp on bass and either Art Blakey or Max Roach on drums. Chasing both coarse and refined ideas, Monk’s piano takes center stage, and the compositions are all certified gems. “Bemsha Swing”, which would become a popular staple, starts with piano curlicues and a funky bass lick before initiating a simple theme. The I-IV modulation of the melody suggests a blues, but the chord progression has a more complicated inevitability. Max’s prowling drums are a nice touch, although the piano-drum exchange at the peak of Monk’s solo is silly. “Little Rootie Tootie” features ear-grabbing stabs of a dissonant chord (simulating a train whistle, perhaps) and a curvy melody over standard changes. The bridge follows Monk’s usual style of sending a phrase from the A section on other harmonic errands. It’s a great piece with a classic solo.

“Reflections” features a friendly top line with characteristic piano touches from the composer. The mood of this extensive piece depends on the tempo in which it’s played; this version is at a medium pulse that dips and ascends like a rolling landscape. Its elegance (the four-note hook) and twang (the chromatic chord shifts) are a Monkian harvest of American roots. The bravura “Trinkle Tinkle” would gain far more notoriety in a later rendition with John Coltrane. This shorter version is just as electrifying, and the lightning melodies hark back to the boldness of Monk’s Blue Notes. Monk is constantly active in his solo, as if checking the rigging of the song’s formidable structure.

“Monk’s Dream” and “Bye-Ya” are two of Monk’s more enduring compositions, although neither ended up being recorded very frequently. Both of them have catchy melodies and unusual yet logical chord sequences. These are the sorts of tunes that a musician might marvel at - not only is the exposition creative and complete in itself, there’s the amazing potential of the chord progressions once the melody drops away. (The other guy whose tunes consistently give me this feeling is Wayne Shorter: “So these were the chords under that melody? Wow.”) Future renditions of “Bye-Ya” would never have quite the same dancing momentum as this one.

Alongside the originals is a pungent take on “These Foolish Things” skewed by the piano’s peculiar tuning (which affects a couple of the session’s other tracks), so even if there was a dint of sincerity, it comes out as a parody. Monk would give the song more attention later.

11/13/53. Given his knack for thematic detail, Sonny Rollins seems like the ideal Monk saxman, and he will prove worthy in time. However, this session is dull, and Rollins partly drags it down. (Also present are Julius Watkins on French horn, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Willie Jones.) “Think of One”, a new composition that involves re-harmonization of a one-note melody, suffers from fluffy reed problems and tentative ensembles in two takes. Monk does well in his solos, but the piece misses the spark it needs. Squeaky reed and sluggishness also foil “Let’s Call This”, a happy theme that pivots on a (sometimes ghosted) pedal note. Monk again plays well, and it’s not that his sidemen play poorly, they just sound timid. In “Friday the 13th”, more of an excuse to play rather than a full-blown composition, a descending chord cycle repeats over and over, and no one sounds thrilled by it. Monk pokes the chords in the ribs, yet by the time his piano solo starts (halfway through the ten and a half minutes), the track’s monotony is hard to overthrow.

5/11/54. One of Monk’s most infectious studio sessions, this four-tune quintet date with Ray Copeland (trumpet), Frank Foster (tenor sax), Curly Russell (bass), and Art Blakey gives the first big hint of the joy Monk’s music could have. “We See” has big band punch in the melody and a downward pull in the chord sequence. “Hackensack” is custom made for comfortable blowing, and like “We See” it mixes historical elements with the thrill of now. Fine solos fill these tracks, and Blakey gets a drum chorus in “Hackensack” that culminates in one of his pet tom patterns. The only downside to this particular “Hackensack” is the tart harmonic extension assigned to tenor in the melody, but it’s not too bad.

The classic ballad “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” is made over with hymnic horns in a stately atmosphere where Monk’s insistent notes and cocktail flourishes are free to roam. Finally, there’s “Locomotive”, one of my favorite Monk tracks ever. The tune toys with a six-note figure through all bars except two turnarounds, and the harmony is relatively open, including an eight-bar stretch of E-flat major. The harmonic plateau, cycling riff, tenor counterpoint, and midtempo pulse (occasionally punched forward by Blakey’s double timing) live up to the title, like a hypnotic train journey. The soloists rely on bop resolutions, yet Copeland, Monk, and Foster also improvise motifs in a modal vein, especially Foster, whose hook-laden tenor solo is memorable from front to back. Secondary delights include Blakey’s bell-like punctuations (a cymbal stand?) and Monk’s chorus of “train horn” kicks.

I think the reason this session feels so good is because the players felt comfortable within the music, which isn’t always the case with early or mid-period Monk. Everyone sounds inspired, and hats off to Frank Foster for his smooth performance.

9/22/54. More trio sides, with Percy Heath and Art Blakey. “Nutty” plants a taunting melody over rhythm changes in B-flat and E-flat. The tune isn’t great, but Monk’s improvisation makes it worthwhile. “Just a Gigolo” gives us an early glimpse of Monk the solo pianist, slicing and dicing with heavy hands. The casual debut of “Blue Monk” reveals a melody that isn’t set in stone yet, but the soloing is solid. Another all-time favorite of mine is “Work”, which tops a series of seventh chords with a puzzler of a melody that never quite resolves. It’s reminiscent in some ways of Monk’s more obscure Blue Note compositions and contains some of his finest playing anywhere. I’ve just listened to it three times in a row (and dozens of times before) and it still surprises how fluid he can be when he wants, as in a certain diving line in his second solo. I don’t know of any other Monk recording of “Work”.

10/25/54. A recharged Sonny Rollins co-leads this quartet session with Monk, bassist Tommy Potter, and drummer Art Taylor. The effervescence that would ferry Rollins through the rest of the decade is heard on “I Want to Be Happy” and “The Way You Look Tonight”, and the tenor stretches out on the slower “More Than You Know”. Refraining from scene-stealing weirdness, Monk plays surprisingly close to the norm, and his sparkling solos are not sloppy seconds. No originals, but the three standards are done dandy nonetheless.

12/24/54. Disc 3 documents the notorious meeting of Monk and Miles Davis, a case study in contrasting musical personalities. Part of the entertainment value comes from the friction between take-no-shit Miles and couldn’t-care-less Monk, whose conceptions of the ideal piano style couldn’t be more different. For Miles, Monk’s spiky accompaniment flew right in the face of his smoother preferences. For Monk, irritation and stubbornness set in when Miles started dictating when or where Monk should play. Buffering the two is Milt Jackson on vibes, who has five times the virtuoso flow of Miles and Monk combined. Bassist Percy Heath and drummer Kenny Clarke get the rhythm job done, presumably grinning into their sleeves.

Ruffled feathers or no, the session produced absolutely classic music with top-drawer solos from the principals. Most celebrated are the two takes of Milt’s blues “Bags’ Groove”. In Take 1, the soloists establish their styles: Miles plays with clarity and expands the blues’ emotional range through his considered phrases; Milt spins dazzling melodies; and then Monk comes in like the repairman, the architect, the High Priest. This might be his most famous solo just for the obvious effect it has in building up sparse ideas. It’s so simple, suspenseful, and unafraid of silences. Take 2 finds Miles and Milt repeating their approaches, while Monk plays a completely different solo to his first. At the end of Take 2, I like the little lick Miles tosses in after the final rhythm section hit. It seems to hint at his ‘60s style.

We also get two takes of “The Man I Love”, one of which begins with a false start when Monk interrupts Milt’s intro: “Can’t I play too?” (Miles then tells the engineer to put the disturbance on the record.) Follies aside, the song is given magnificent treatment in both takes, from Miles’ romantic theme reading (suggesting the majesty of his sound with Gil Evans) to Jackson’s double-time eloquence to Monk’s attempts to deliver the melody in half-time against the doubled time. In the second take, Monk abandons this trick rather arbitrarily in the midst of a chorus and just stops playing. Agitated, Miles blows his horn at Monk from across the room, and the pianist resumes soloing. “The Man I Love” is beautiful on the one hand and indicative of a tense studio atmosphere on the other.

Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” gets a slow read, and Miles pays close attention to the tune’s chord changes. (Whether or not he enjoyed playing with Monk, and by all accounts he didn’t, Miles was nevertheless a great Monk interpreter.) This is also the only tune where Miles permits Monk to accompany him; on all other tracks, the trumpet has no piano support. Miles’ original “Swing Spring” is a blithe bop piece that again finds the two giants in musical badminton. The trumpet solo quotes a couple of hallmark Monk licks (as does Miles’ “Bemsha” solo, by the way), and Monk’s response is to grab the ball and run with it. “Swing Spring” being based on rhythm changes, it’s right up Monk’s rhythm-a-ning alley, and he turns to his own “Humph” for the coup de grace. If Miles was throwing feints in order to make the pianist flinch, Monk didn’t even blink. Despite the audible tension, Miles sounds magnificent and Monk maintains his aloof dignity. One of the all-time great jazz meetings, the session overflows with strong character and memorable music.

And that’s what she’s got. This box is really the easiest way to acquire these recordings, a lot of which were released willy-nilly on various LPs with arbitrary logic. (The tracks with Miles, for example, were split across two separate Davis titles for no real reason.) The remastered sound is punchier than the earlier CD issues, and the booklet has a good essay by Peter Keepnews. Overall, it’s an essential collection for those wanting to hear the formation of Monk’s musical persona.

Back to Monk