Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Music Library: Thelonious Sphere Monk

I try not to phone these in (despite all appearances to the contrary), but I'm quite stumped about how to discuss the individual output of Thelonious Sphere Monk, who was one of the most singular jazz artists who has ever lived. In a nutshell, Monk played notes that should have been wrong, but he made them right. His melodies are cathedrals of topsy-turvydom, careening around through shifting keys and odd phrasing in a way that technically should be incredibly offputting, but instead they manage to be full of timeless hooks and eminently hummable. There are different types of genius, but this is the kind that is at the peak, the kind of genius that makes the world different.

Blue Note Records Period (1947-52)

Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1 (1947).
Milt Jackson and the Thelonious Monk Quartet (1948).
Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 2 (1951-52).

The earliest tracks with Monk as a bandleader include some of his most enduring compositions, such as "Straight No Chaser," "In Walked Bud," and "'Round Midnight." He would record these many times, though, and despite having Art Blakey or Max Roach on drums for the Genius compilations and despite the Modern Jazz Quartet on the Milt Jackson album, these are not the best versions of Monk's compositions. Which is not to say that these are bad albums; on the contrary, they are extraordinary. It's just that with Monk, there are recordings that are even more extraordinary.

Prestige Records Period (1952-54)

Thelonious Monk Trio (1952)
Monk (1954)
Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins (1954).

All three of these albums, for instance, are outrageously fantastic. Trio has versions of "Blue Monk" and "Bemsha Swing" on it, and if you listen closely, you can hear Monk singing along with his piano notes. Monk adds sax, with Sonny Rollins filling in on several tracks, including both versions of "Think Of One." The straight-up collaboration with Sonny Rollins is a thing of beauty with the two artistes pushing each other into crazier and crazier spaces.

Riverside Records Period (1955-61)

Plays Duke Ellington (1955).
The Unique Thelonious Monk (1956).
Brilliant Corners (1957).
Thelonious Himself (1957).
Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane (1957).
Monk's Music (1957).
Mulligan Meets Monk (with Gerry Mulligan, 1957).
At Carnegie Hall (as The Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane on Blue Note, 1957).
At The Five Spot - Discovery (as The Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane on Blue Note, 1958).
Thelonious In Action (1958).
Misterioso (as The Thelonious Monk Quartet, 1958).
The Thelonious Monk Orchestra At Town Hall (1959).
5 By Monk By 5 (1959).
Alone In San Francisco (1959).

Both the Duke Ellington and Unique albums feature Monk by himself (on the former) and fronting a trio (on the latter) playing other people's compositions. Brilliant Corners is the best bop album ever recorded, challenging and emotional and heartbreaking and beautiful. It is the pinnacle of bop-era jazz. There's nothing finer. Thelonious Himself is mostly solo piano recordings, but Coltrane sits in on one track. The Coltrane album is excellent, as the saxophonist is still in the process of becoming himself, but still sounds both insanely talented and desperate to distinguish himself from Rollins. Monk's Music is also first-rate, and Coltrane plays on it, too. The Gerry Mulligan collaboration is pretty good. It would be worldshakingly great if not for the run of albums around it. The Carnegie Hall and Five Spot live albums are absolutely amazing documents of Monk and Coltrane's exquisite chemistry, especially since both were discovered and released many years later (2005 and 1993, respectively). In Action and Misterioso, both recorded at the Five Spot with Johnny Griffin on sax, are good, but not great, with great versions of "Rhythm-A-Ning" on the former and the title track on the latter. The Town Hall recording, with Monk fronting a 10-piece orchestra is an excellent reconsideration of his compositions. 5 By Monk By 5 has Monk fronting a quintet with Charlie Rouse on sax playing five of his compositions. It is great-but-not-perfect. Alone is beautiful but unusually melancholy.


Columbia Records Period (1962-68)
Monk's Dream (1962).
Criss Cross (1962).
Miles & Monk At Newport (1962).
In Japan (1963).
Solo Monk (1964).
Straight No Chaser (1966).
Underground (1967).
Monk's Blues (1968).
Monk Alone: The Complete Columbia Solo Studio Recordings 1962-1968.

Monk's Dream and Criss Cross are both tight quartet recordings with Charlie Rouse on sax and Monk playing like his fingers are on fire. The Newport album is a weird cash-in that had a 1958 Miles recording on one side and a 1963 Monk recording on the other. I can't remember how I rated the Miles performance, but the Monk one is a little lackluster. The live In Japan album, recorded on the same tour as the class In Tokyo, which I don't have, is pretty good, though. There are a number of albums I don't have from 1963-64. Solo Monk, all of which also appears on Monk Alone, is a lovely solo piano recording. Straight No Chaser is pretty good, too, but not phenomenal. Underground is that phenomenon, though, with a number of new compositions and a version of "In Walked Bud" with vocals. It is his last album for all intents and purposes, and it is a great album, too, as should be fitting for such a giant. Monk's Blues is barely a Monk album, being mostly filled with Oliver Nelson's orchestra playing utterly cheesy big-band versions of Monk's compositions with the man himself semi-consciously sitting in on piano. Monk did not die until 1982, but he made no more albums, either. I say we call it a Nelson album instead. Monk Alone is a later collection of all of Monk's solo piano pieces from this era.


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