Monk on Riverside

The classic period of acceptance and dissemination, working bands, and producer Orrin Keepnews rolling tape in as many different scenarios as possible. One has to credit Keepnews for making the most of Monk’s tenure with the label and always putting the artist in a good light. He captured Monk with all-star sidemen, a big band, solo, playing selected cover material, and on the job in clubs. None of which went without Thelonious’ approval, and getting the stubborn pianist to do something he didn’t want to do would have been impossible anyway. And even though Keepnews’ first order of business was to have Monk record middle-ground material - in order to get this “weird” artist over to the public - it baffles me why anyone would complain about Monk playing Ellington or some of his favorite standards.

None of the Riversides are duds, and all of them are unique in one way or another, not counting a couple of twin live recordings. I once owned the complete Riverside box set, then I began replacing it with the individual remasters. Exclusive to the box are an aborted session with Shelly Manne and the 1958 debut version of “Coming on the Hudson” with a one-off studio band.

Plays Duke Ellington
June 1955

This album has always tapped a glass ceiling in the Monk catalog, since it has no originals and it’s “only” a trio record. That’s a shame because it’s hard to think of a better or more appropriate source of outside material. With excellent support from Oscar Pettiford and Kenny Clarke, Monk investigates eight Duke classics without losing any of his own identity. Monk and Duke have always shared pianistic DNA anyway, so it’s a good fit. Monk has rarely flowed as he does in “It Don’t Mean a Thing” or especially “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart”. When Monk returns after the bass solo in the latter, he plays eyebrow-raising phrases that quickly deflate the “he had no real technique” balloon. What I find most interesting is how much he actually improvises in his solos; he often paraphrases or abstracts his own tunes when soloing on them, yet the Ellington material inspires Monk to somewhat more orthodox improv. The only familiar lick is an ascending whole-tone run used to negotiate certain changes. He has plenty of ideas for “It Don’t Mean a Thing”, and he casts nifty lines in “Caravan”. Part of the uniqueness of “Caravan” is the rhythmic setting. We know very well what Monk sounds like playing swing or stride, so it’s fun to hear him play against a rhythm that arrives by boat.

“Solitude” and “Sophisticated Lady” are inrospective, the former dissected with care. The first two minutes of “I Got It Bad” render the song in ponderous chords, and the rest of the track features bass and piano solos. (Pettiford also delivers a good one in “Caravan”.) I can’t say that every track is a gem - “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Mood Indigo” are nice but slip by casually - although the LP satisfies as a whole. For a handful of outstanding tracks doused with great Thelonious piano, I think this record deserves a higher evaluation than it usually gets.

The Unique Thelonious Monk
Mar-Apr. 1956

Here’s another “introduce Monk to the masses” trio effort (with Pettiford and Art Blakey) in which Thelonious reinvents several standards. Like the Duke tribute, it tends to get dismissed for lack of original material or solo star power. Nonetheless, it’s a perky record, and the material means something to Thelonious, since he would re-record six of the seven tunes in later years. Highlights include the zigzagging riffs in Gershwin’s “Liza” and the re-harmonized “Tea for Two”. “Darn That Dream” filters a rather downcast emotion through Monk’s harmonic signatures. “You Are Too Beautiful” could have been as affecting but for the chunky chords Monk juts through the song’s veneer. “Memories of You” is his most comprehensive solo piano display to date. “Just You Just Me” (the source of “Evidence”) answers melodic phrases with bass figures. There’s a galloping lick in Monk’s solo that would become familiar over time, and also an obnoxious hammering climax, for which subsequent tinklings beg forgiveness.

If I don’t spend much more time on this album, it’s only because I think Monk’s later versions of some of these tunes are superior. Circa 1956, the album had a simple premise: let Monk meet the public through familiar material. For the initiated listeners of the future, the music holds more charm than surprise.

Brilliant Corners
Dec. 1956

These corners define Monk’s cragginess to a crooked T. Not even with Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, and Oscar Pettiford on hand did the music emerge smoothly - the title track was attempted 20-odd times, and the luscious “Pannonica” suffers growing pains in its debut version. Yet Brilliant Corners is a most essential Monk record. Coming on the heels of two well-done standards albums, it re-asserts the leader as a bold iconoclast, creating music as startling and fresh as any of his Blue Notes or Prestiges.

The opening phrase of the title track takes a dark turn, voiced by Sonny Rollins’ tenor and Ernie Henry’s alto and backed by the leader’s dissonant piano commentary. The second iteration of the phrase falls into a major arpeggio (feigning resolution) that is immediately repeated with a tritone at the end (a harsh gotcha). The bridge tumbles Tetris shapes into a chord wormhole, and the A section returns with a solid resolution. THEN the whole chorus is repeated in double time. “Brilliant Corners” being a harrowing sequence of miniscule timings and variations, it’s no wonder that the team could barely get through one complete take of it. (The master version had to be assembled via editing.) It’s also one of the most truly original pieces Monk ever penned, and the tension it generated at this session kept Monk away from it for over a decade afterward, on record at least. If the theme was tough, soloing was even more of a challenge, especially with the slow/fast tempo shift. Rollins finds space to rhapsodize but is brought up short at times, while Henry plays the sax with one hand and waves a white flag with the other. It’s too bad “Brilliant Corners” scared everyone off for a while, because it’s a playable piece in hindsight.

“Bolivar Blues” (phonetically embellished in its printed title) offers respite from the title track, although it too emphasizes dissonance at a peak moment. This particular performance is Monk’s seediest blues on record, starting in a slow tempo with wary phrases. Later versions smooth it out into a happier piece. Rollins’ solo is the most easygoing, while Ernie Henry makes the blues sound much harder to play than it is. Piano, bass, and drums all take turns as well. The final theme is faster than the initial statement, although you’d have to skip back to the beginning to hear just how much the beat had accelerated over the course of 13 minutes.

“Pannonica” exists somewhere between a lullaby and a reflective ballad. The sweetness of this version comes from Monk doubling on tinkly celeste, but that’s the only heartwarming thing about it, as the band sounds like they have just learned the piece. Sonny does his best with it; Monk’s solo steals some sweeping phrases from Rollins and also has a neat moment (at 4:40) where the celeste finishes a long phrase started by the piano. For “Bemsha Swing”, Paul Chambers takes over the bass, Clark Terry’s trumpet replaces Ernie Henry’s alto, and Max Roach rumbles on tympani alongside his regular traps. Terry plays well but also tapers off the second note of the main melody, and I’d argue that the whole hook of the tune relies on that note being decisively cut off, instead of trailing away. Hear how Rollins grabs the last phrase of Monk’s solo as his own starting point. The unaccompanied piano rendition of “I Surrender Dear” is pleasant in comparison to the other tracks. Monk by himself is still an unpredictable tension-generator, if only in the smallest details.

The album isn’t a smooth listen, and all five tracks have moments of hesitancy, but that’s the sound of challenging work.

Thelonious Himself
April 1957

Based on previous unaccompanied performances, Monk promised to be a worthy if unconventional solo pianist. In this full-length solo recital, he turns several standards and a couple of originals into chasms, caves, daydreams, and benedictions. “April in Paris” sums it up: the melody is planted firmly in foreground chords, surrounded by many pregnant silences. I reckon several minutes of the album’s running time are taken up by the hang time of chords; pulse gets suspended, and the songs progress via shifts of harmonic afterglow.

Another way of stating the above is that the music is very private, and Monk listens to every bar he plays, judging and adjusting. “April in Paris” is a prime cut of Monkian beauty, and one has to applaud the nine minutes of casual blues variations in “Functional”, the only track with a steady pulse. The halting delivery of “A Ghost of a Chance” is very poignant. “All Alone” begins with soft consonance that’s subsumed by spikier voicings. The melodrama is questionable in “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” (although it’s a nice contrast to the countless quartet versions he would go on to record) and nearly comical in “I Should Care”. Talk about being on the edge of your seat, “I Should Care” takes delayed gratification to a cruel level. As much as Miles would be known for leaving space in his solos, Monk was the original master of crafting silence. Without bass or drums, the effect is even more dramatic.

Two special points of interest are “Monk’s Mood” and a “Round Midnight” in progress. “Monk’s Mood”, which ends the original LP sequence, starts with a chorus of solo piano and then adds tenor John Coltrane and bassist Wilbur Ware for the remainder of the track. It’s one of the most beautiful events either Monk or Trane had ever recorded. The piece itself had a maudlin character in its Blue Note debut, but this version strips it down to stark romance with Trane’s plaintive lead voice and gentle bass reinforcement. It’s totally human (hear Trane trying to cue his phrases in exact time with the piano) and lovely. The main program’s master take of “Round Midnight” is good, and a CD bonus cut lets us hear Monk prepping the tune for twenty-one minutes. Yes, it’s excessive but still fascinating to hear the composer uncovering nuances in his masterpiece. Keepnews calls in from the booth a couple of times to see if Monk’s ready to go, but Thelonious keeps deliberating at the keyboard.

Thelonious Himself is not an album for all occasions, requiring a receptiveness in the listener that goes beyond what they might otherwise bring to a rhythmically driven Monk album.

Monk’s Music
June 1957

The jazz/sports analogy rides on the concepts of teamwork and interaction. A corollary is that the all-star team isn’t necessarily better than the team with a working history, and this is an all-star assembly for sure: Ray Copeland (trumpet), Gigi Gryce (alto), John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins (tenor saxes), Monk, Wilbur Ware (bass), and Art Blakey on drums. They make some spectacular individual plays along with a few clunks and blips. There are uncertainties about solo order (Monk shouting “Coltrane!” on “Well You Needn’t”, or Hawk’s premature entry in the midst of “Epistrophy”) and flubbed notes (Copeland on the “Off Minor” theme - yikes). Regardless, the imperfections are part of the atmosphere, which is otherwise quite flavorful.

“Well You Needn’t” features a memorable Coltrane solo (so commanding in his first phrases) and mischievous Monk-Blakey interplay. “Epistrophy” is another all-skate jam with strong Coltrane and a fine solo from Gryce, whose alto sax almost mimics a clarinet, while Blakey lashes everyone together. On these bigger pieces, Hawkins’ wrangled sound compares oddly to Coltrane’s steel beams, but Hawk gives affecting attention to “Ruby My Dear” on which he is the only horn. Hawkins also delivers on “Off Minor”, as does Copeland despite his ensemble gaffes.

The closing number premieres Monk’s magnum opus “Crepuscule with Nellie”, a composition that mixes the regal romanticism of “Ruby My Dear” with the contours of “Reflections” and the heady thoughts of “Round Midnight” in a no-solos structure. Musical elements include clustered voicings, minor-eleventh chord motion (a la “Ruby”), inner chromatic movement, the works. However, this version (and the spliced-together alternate take) is a timid one. It’s not an easy thing for a band to play having just learned it (the Riverside box reveals some faltering attempts to get it down). The last couple bars of the bridge are toughest, and even Monk waffles on the accents. But even though the performance lacks a little conviction, the originality of the composition wins out.

Going back to the first paragraph, the album is more of an advanced jam session than anything else, and the only real chemistry is between Monk and Blakey. The horns make a lot of personal noise above them. Fun stuff.

With John Coltrane
June-July 1957

For a long time, this was the only available document of an infamous pairing. Monk’s music gave Coltrane lots of harmonic challenges and toughened his soloing resolve. Monk benefited by getting a heck of a saxophonist for a season. They were a legendary live thrill by all accounts, and a couple of live recordings emerged long after the fact. The Monk/Trane quartet with bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Shadow Wilson only visited the studio once and recorded three tracks, a meager number but highly concentrated in quality.

The chosen tunes are “Ruby My Dear”, “Trinkle Tinkle”, and “Nutty”, and Coltrane is magnificent on all of them. He adheres to the melodic shape of “Ruby” and expands upon it once the piece is underway, his stateliness matching the mood of the tune perfectly. Coltrane uses the other two tunes for “sheets of sound” experimentation - torrents of phrases that magnify the chord paths. Monk lays out and gives Trane lots of room to blow, and “Trinkle Tinkle” in particular turns into a thrilling venture.

Filling out the LP (initially released on Jazzland, a subsidiary of Riverside) are three alternate takes from previous sessions. From the Monk’s Music session comes an alternate of “Off Minor”, on which Coltrane doesn’t solo. (This same alternate is a bonus track on the Monk’s Music remaster.) Also a truncated “Epistrophy”, with quick turns from Trane and Ray Copeland. The final track is an alternate “Functional” from April’s solo piano sessions, very nice.

Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane:
The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings
Released 2006

Instead of acquiring Monk’s Music and the Coltrane collaboration individually, you could opt for this two disc set that contains both of those albums along with a few extras. The packaging is nice and the music is finely remastered by Joe Tarantino. The only complaint one might have is with the archival presentation, whereby the first disc stumbles through multiple attempts at “Crepuscule with Nellie”, and following that, alternate takes of other tunes are positioned next to each other. So it’s not the sort of program to listen to as one would an album, but as a collection, it’s got everything, including the piano-sax duet “Monk’s Mood” (from Thelonious Himself) and the “Blues For Tomorrow” jam recorded in Monk’s absence. Also, the Monk’s Music session is in stereo here, unlike my mono remaster.

Mulligan Meets Monk
Aug. 1957

West meets East: the cool baritone joins the Monk/Ware/Wilson team and blows a good set. Gerry Mulligan had gotten to know Thelonious a few years earlier in Paris, reassuring the pianist with his attentive presence during a dicey festival gig (“Don’t you worry about them - I’ll be just off the side of the stage, listening.”). Monk had later offered his pithy verbal endorsement of Mulligan: “He can play.” Apparently that was enough mutual enthusiasm to schedule a studio meeting.

Mulligan has no problem with the likes of “Round Midnight”, “Straight No Chaser”, or “Rhythm-a-Ning”, where he’s on top of the tempo with surprisingly quick phrases. “Rhythm-a-Ning” (apparently composed years earlier but only recently making it to record) features a melody of various components - arpeggios, a stepwise scale, and a syncopated ascent - over standard rhythm changes. None of the three takes of “I Mean You” are perfectly executed, yet Mulligan’s tone and style is just right for the tune.

All the players seem to enjoy Mulligan’s bouncy original “Decidedly”, and there’s an okay version of “Sweet and Lovely”, the only standard. Ever unpredictable, Monk dispatches fancy lines one moment and then hides behind ornery riffs the next. And either through error or playfulness, he prematurely sends Mulligan back to the bridge of “Round Midnight”. It’s nice to hear the boundaries between Cool and Bop blurred, and Mulligan’s contrapuntal, linear concept (hear his soft counterlines behind Monk) is in some ways analogous to Monk’s vertical courage.

Thelonious in Action
July-Aug 1958

“Don’t play bebop over my tunes!” Monk once admonished a sideman who was dishing out licks. Apparently this injunction was waived for tenor Johnny Griffin, who smokes every one of these tunes recorded at the Five Spot in 1958. Griffin motormouths on every piece, reducing Monk’s tunes into easy-shred documents, and he even waves off the band a few times (!) and goes into showboat soliloquies. Either you’re drawn to Griffin’s exuberance or not, and that’s the determining factor of these albums. I find him a little overbearing; where Coltrane plays a lot of notes in a musical search, Griffin just seems to play a lot of notes because he can. On the other hand, I can hear the appeal of his enthusiasm, and for some listeners, these are THE live Monk albums. After all, the leader thrives in this gig, and bass and drums are handled very well by Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Roy Haynes.

Misterioso stretches the title track into a long Griffin blues extravaganza supported by steady bass and Haynesian drum chatter. Also revived are “Let’s Cool One” and “In Walked Bud”, in which Griffin unleashes a tenor downpour from blue skies. The new “Blues Five Spot” is a catchy 12-bar theme. The two bonus tracks on the remastered CD, “Round Midnight” and “Evidence”, are as good as anything in the main program. The latter is “evidence” enough of Monk’s keyboard energy, and Haynes drops in a colorful drum solo.

Excitement continues in Thelonious in Action, including classics like “Rhythm-a-ning”, “Blue Monk”, and another “Blues Five Spot”, no problem there. The two new pieces are often overlooked. “Light Blue” is like a playful ballet, while “Coming on the Hudson” essays a partly wistful melody over tricky timings. “Coming on the Hudson” had first been laid down earlier in the year, although both it and “Light Blue” would be bettered in later Columbia renditions, in my opinion. Despite any reservations I might have about Griffin, I can’t deny the swinging good time on both of these albums.

Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall
Feb. 1959

Tuxedo Monk, elevated by place and presentation. Arranger Hall Overton’s charts for tentet enliven several choice tunes. Star participants include Donald Byrd (trumpet), Phil Woods (alto sax), Pepper Adams (baritone), and lo, here’s Charlie Rouse on tenor sax making his first Monk record. There’s also French horn, trombone, and tuba; John Ore and Art Taylor handle bass and drums. Hardly lost in the ensemble, Monk’s piano makes its mark, from the gorgeous exposition of “Monk’s Mood” to his quota of soloing space. Whatever complaints some critics of the time might have had about the Town Hall concert - fueled by high expectations - credit still goes to Overton for grasping his subject’s angular essence.

Overton’s arrangements mainly add shout and weight to the harmonies. Any “new” textures in the charts are extrapolated from what Monk implied in the first place, and anyway, his piano is a central source of the show’s color. In “Thelonious”, for example, the piano tells us all we need to know about the chords, while the horns amplify. The true christening of “Crepuscule with Nellie” happens here, and “Little Rootie Tootie” whirls like a carnival ride - at a climactic moment, the horns execute a transcription of Monk’s original 1952 piano solo, something I didn’t fully appreciate on first hearing. I heard this Town Hall music before the older Prestige record, so when I did finally check out the original “Little Rootie Tootie”, the solo was deja-deja-vu.

Elsewhere are a powerful “Off Minor” and a salvage job on “Friday the 13th”, still a repetitious piece. Rouse plays fairly well, and it’s fun to hear Woods and Adams in Monkland. The album lacks the spontaneity of a smaller band but there are plenty of quartet records to come. In spirit, it’s far from humdrum, if not the be-all end-all of expanded ensemble Monk.

Five by Monk by Five
June 1959

This quintet record with Thad Jones (cornet), Charlie Rouse (tenor sax), Monk, Sam Jones (bass), and Art Taylor (drums) has been called underrated so many times that it’s probably not underrated anymore. The five tunes include three senior classics and two newcomers, all solidly delivered. Charlie Rouse detractors who only know the man’s playing from the Columbia years would be wise to check out how he plays here - loose, long phrases that aren’t truncated or stilted at all.

“Played Twice” is actually played thrice on the CD, in one master and two alternate takes. The head involves tricky timings, strange harmonic clusters, and chords that sneak into weird bar locations. A four-bar stretch of a suspended F7 chord lets the soloists discharge pent-up ideas. It’s a catchy piece, despite some off notes from Thad in the ensemble. The final chords of the theme are a Monk favorite: thirteenth chord into a major seventh, like a secular, urban “Amen.” The other new composition is a fanfare-like theme called “Jackie-ing” that spends a lot of time on one chord and throws in a couple of others for twists. It would receive more confident treatment in later live performances, yet the debut is well done.

Rouse and Jones play superb solos on an easygoing “Straight No Chaser” and also excel in “Ask Me Now”, an underrated Monk ballad. “I Mean You” is at a slower pace than usual. Maybe the album was overlooked for years because it lacks the tension (or boldness?) of other Monk records, but I think that's the very reason to celebrate it. No, there’s no highwire tenor sax, and Taylor doesn’t equal Blakey’s zest, but isn’t it great to hear players feeling comfortable in a Monk session? And I don’t mean that they’re coasting or being boring. The whole album is easy to listen to without being easy listening. Monk plays quite well and sounds relaxed with his group and material.

Alone in San Francisco
Oct. 1959

Monk’s best solo piano album aims a wide-angle, deep-focus lens on both small details and the big picture. So self-sufficient are the readings of “Blue Monk”, “Pannonica”, and “Reflections” that one might forget they ever required other instruments. In fact, I’m tempted to say that these are their definitive performances, considering the rhythmic variety of the blues (swing and stride) and the intimate web of “Pannonica”. Monk sculpts “Reflections” in a loving way, and “Ruby My Dear” brims with reverence, too.

The other two originals look to the blues. “Bluehawk” is based on a three-note motif and the pregnant space that follows, while “Round Lights” fills a 12-bar form with rich textures that go above and beyond basic blues harmony. Only the turnarounds reveal the chassis of “Round Lights”; the bulk of the chords suggest other pastures. Fascinating, since Monk poured it out on the spot.

Of the standards, a hushed “Remember” and an appropriately cautious “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie” both demonstrate a rare lyrical touch. “Everything Happens to Me” and “You Took the Words” put Monk in remodeling mode. Even though I’m not a fan of the former song, and even though the repeated notes in its melody would seem to appeal to Monk’s bombastic side, this version is nicely restrained.

There are essential tracks on the other solo albums, and also some amazing solo pieces on Monk’s group albums, yet I rate Alone In San Francisco the most satisfying solo collection overall. The blend of material and mood is a factor, but mainly I’m impressed by Monk’s masterful performances. The 2005 remaster clarifies the dynamics of the recording and adds a little body to the piano, compared to the previous CD issue.

At the Blackhawk
Apr. 1960

Here’s a live album that didn’t need to happen and probably wouldn’t have happened had Monk and Shelly Manne been able to consummate their studio collaboration in the days before. On this acceptably recorded club gig (you can even hear a patron’s phone call in the middle of one tune), Monk, bassist John Ore, and tenor Charlie Rouse are joined by trumpeter Joe Gordon, tenor Harold Land, and drummer Billy Higgins. Typical of Monk’s live sets, familiar pieces (“Evidence”, “Round Midnight”) sit alongside rarities (“Four in One”, no match for the Blue Note original) and a new entry or two. “San Francisco Holiday”, first attempted with Manne, is Monk’s least appealing composition. The two-layer melody sends one line down chromatically while an E-flat is hammered nonstop as both the tritone to A and the flat-nine to D - pretty annoying, and the bridge only intensifies the dissonance. Cool solos, though. “Let’s Call This”, in contrast, is a most amiable Monk theme, and a not-overexposed one at that. Let’s call it the Blackhawk’s heart of gold.

Rouse begins to streamline his soloing vocabulary, while Monk toggles between excited and aloof playing. They sound great together on “Round Midnight”. Gordon and Land do their part, and Higgins turns out to be a nice fit for Monk. Not essential or surprising, but the performances have character.

Monk in France
Monk in Italy
April 1961

These two live gigs served to close out Monk’s Riverside contract, although his work at Columbia was well underway before they saw release, as far as I can deduce. Nonetheless, in retrospect, they’re the earliest documents of the quartet sound Monk would use throughout the 1960s. The working band includes Charlie Rouse on tenor, on his way toward being Monk’s longest-running sideman, and John Ore and Frankie Dunlop on bass and drums. What the quartet lacks in danger they make up for in consistency.

The Paris gig (from April 18) includes a hot “Hackensack” and “Off Minor” as highlights. The playing is pretty vibrant, and Monk explores both the familiar and the spontaneous. Not a bad acquisition for someone who’s already enjoyed all the live Columbias and wants more, although it doesn’t reveal anything much different.

Recorded three days later, the Milan music is slightly more rewarding. There’s a quick dash through “Jackie-ing” and a solo piano “Body and Soul” that rivals any version Monk would later record. “Rhythm-a-ning” is irresistible, and by this point, both Rouse and Monk have accepted the old “Humph” chord changes as obligatory solo subplots. “Crepuscule with Nellie” serves a ritualistic role in the sets now. “Bemsha Swing” is hip. “San Francisco Holiday” has good solos. Not bad a-tall.

The sound of these CDs is good, not great, sort of like quality radio broadcasts with consistent levels. We hear everything that happens, at any rate. I’ll be going into more detail about this Monk phase on the Columbia page, so I don’t have much more commentary on these puppies. I’d say they’re for completists only, but then, one of them might be the first Monk album that hooks a newcomer, so why rule them out?

San Francisco Holiday

A single disc of extra odds and ends from the gigs listed above, such as the quartet portion of the Town Hall concert, more with Griffin, and so on. These decent performances were probably omitted from the original albums because of LP time constraints. Not totally essential, this CD allows the listener who’s going the individual album route to acquire quite a bit of what was once exclusive to the complete Riverside box.

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