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Thelonious Monk

Reviewed on this page:
The Best Of (The Blue Note Years) - Thelonious Monk Trio - Plays Duke Ellington - Brilliant Corners - Monk's Music - Live At The Five Spot - At Carnegie Hall - Mulligan Meets Monk - Misterioso - Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk - The Thelonious Monk Orchestra At Town Hall - Alone In San Francisco - At The Blackhawk - Monk's Dream - Criss Cross - Live At The IT! Club - Monk. - Straight No Chaser - Underground - Monk's Blues - Straight No Chaser: Music From The Motion Picture

It's not easy to grade Thelonious Monk releases. He's always Monk, always sounds just like himself and nobody else (his song title "Ugly Beauty" describes his sound better than any words I could use). He wrote most of his songs before he was thirty and recorded them over and over again. Unrivaled as a musical humorist: he'll play a note that sounds obviously wrong... then the next time around the whole band plays it. His rhythmic sense is so unique you wonder if he's for real. And his ballads are even more off-kilter and unconventional than his uptempo pieces, with melodies so refined that his soloists (including many of the top reedmen of the day) are often reduced to just playing the melody with a few embellishments.

For me, his various talents are displayed best on the quartet and quintet recordings, but in my heart I think of everything of his as a five star record: pick up anything with his name on it (except for the bizarre big band record Monk's Blues) and you won't go far wrong. And don't confuse him with his son, who put out some late 70s disco records under the name "T.S. Monk" but is now running the MonkZone.com site, which sells MP3 and CDs of rare recordings from the family archives. I've also read and reviewed Robin D. G. Kelley's epic biography. (DBW)

After Hours At Minton's (rec. 1941)
The fabled late night jam sessions at Minton's that kicked off bebop did actually happen, and there's even some documentation of them. The amateur recordings have a lot in common with Hendrix's earliest preserved work: They've been released over the years in a variety of configurations, there's a lot of ordinary playing comfortably within the genre conventions of the day ("I've Found A New Baby"), and some of the cuts don't feature the future star at all, but - maddeningly - there are indeed flashes of embryonic genius that make the material worth hearing. Some of these songs popped up on Monk set lists for years to come - "Nice Work If You Can Get It"; "Sweet Georgia Brown" - and of course "I Got Rhythm" served as the foundation for a slew of seminal bop tunes including his own "Rhythm-A-Ning." (DBW)

The Best Of (The Blue Note Years) (rec. 1947-1952)
All three-minute recordings (originally issued on 78s), this is the best place to hear his compositions as compositions rather than as solo vehicles. In addition to big-deal hits ("Well You Needn't"; "Ruby My Dear"), you'll find some rarely recorded Monk originals, and good ones: "Ask Me Now," "Skippy." Though on second look I see I should have gotten the two-volume Genius Of Modern Music, a more comprehensive compilation from the same sessions. (DBW)

Thelonious Monk Trio (1954)
Monk left Blue Note for Prestige, which did get him into the studio and onto LP, even though the results were mixed. Working with a badly out of tune piano is a striking way to present Monk's advanced harmonies and minimalist voicings, but doesn't always produce the most accessible results. The good news is - like the Blue Note recordings - this set presents many of his greatest compositions in straightforward form: "Bemsha Swing"; "Blue Monk"; the finger-twister "Trinkle Tinkle." In fact, all seven Monk originals had not been recorded previously, and they're laid out to great advantage here ("Reflections"). Which brings up an idea: anyone want to join me in a band that plays snappy covers of Thelonious numbers with rock'n'roll instrumentation? We'll be The Monkies. (DBW)

Monk (1954)
Five new Monk tunes (including "We See" and "Locomotive") and one standard ("Smoke Gets In Your Eyes"), cut with two different quintets. (DBW)

Thelonious Monk And Sonny Rollins (1954)
Actually, Rollins is on only three of the five tracks, recorded at three largely unproductive sessions. "Nutty" became a standard part of Monk's repertoire; the other two originals - "Work" and "Friday The 13th" - didn't. (DBW)

Plays The Music Of Duke Ellington (1955)
After the unrewarding stint at Prestige, Monk spent years recording for upstart label Riverside, which worked hard to convince the world that he was a genius. (Of course, once they succeeded, he split for Columbia.) First, Riverside asked him to record an LP of Ellington tunes to convince the typical square listener that Monk was a jazz musician, not a creature from another (more musically advanced) planet. I don't know how successful this was from a marketing standpoint; Monk seems a little restrained here, and it's not the best introduction to his style - you may just think "Boy, this guy has a rudimentary piano technique" unless you've heard his other recordings. A trio with Oscar Pettiford (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums), apart from the unaccompanied "Solitude." (DBW)

The Unique Thelonious Monk (1955)
All standards, several of which would remain in his repertoire for good ("Just You, Just Me"). Backing by Pettiford and Art Blakey. Monk made a notable sideman appearance on Gigi Gryce's Nica's Tempo the same year, contributing three rarely heard originals ("Shuffle Boil"; "Gallop's Gallop"). (DBW)

Brilliant Corners (1956)
This septet set is weird stuff any way you look at it: A thirteen minute version of the slooow blues "Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-lues-Are" (later retitled simply "Bolivar Blues"). A tape-spliced recording of the 30-bar title tune, which the first-rate cast had so much trouble playing it that they couldn't get through a complete take. Then, the lovely "Pannonica" has the unusual feature of Monk playing piano and celeste simultaneously. A toasty run through the classic "Bemsha Swing" is more or less the only number that's normal by Monk standards. So the record well worth hearing for the curiosity factor alone, and most of the experiments work to boot. With the exception of 1968's Underground, this would be the last Monk album to be made up chiefly of new compositions. (DBW)

Thelonious Himself (1957)
A solo album, except for "Monk's Mood," which has Wilbur Ware (bass) and Coltrane (tenor). (DBW)

Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane (rec. 1957, rel. 1961)
I think I never bought this because I had the three quartet tracks featuring Coltrane on a compilation, but that's a pretty poor excuse. (DBW)

Monk's Music (1957)
An all-star septet including
John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins and Blakey take on a set of Monk standards. Hawk's solo on "Ruby My Dear" is gut-wrenching, the new composition "Crepescule With Nellie" (a concerto, with no solos) is breathtaking, and the uptempo "Well You Needn't" and "Epistrophy" have never sounded better. (DBW)

Live At The Five Spot (rec. 1957, rel. 1993)
The first recording to document Monk's 1957 long-running live engagement with John Coltrane, which was a watershed in both artists' careers. The CD was made from a mono tape recorded with a single handheld mike... in short, it sounds like a bootleg, so the newly released Carnegie Hall concert is greatly preferable. But the performances live up to their reputation, and three of the five tunes here ("Trinkle Tinkle," "In Walked Bud" and "I Mean You") don't appear on Carnegie Hall, so you may want to suffer through the tape hiss anyway. (DBW)

5 stars At Carnegie Hall (rec. 1957, rel. 2005)
Finally, a reason to be thankful for the Voice of America: their library of live tapes, transferred to the Library of Congress in 1963, includes both sets the Monk Quartet with John Coltrane performed on November 29, 1957. The sound quality is terrific, and Monk's in a lively, playful mood ("Bye-Ya"), so this disc would be worth picking up even if Trane weren't on it; since he is, it's a must-have. Unlike any other saxophonist I've heard attempt "Evidence," Trane tames the tune, with long swirling lines that elucidate without restating Monk's terse theme. In fact, Trane's playing on every track merits serious study, both from the perspective of how his techniques - especially the famous "sheets of sound" - were developing, and how he applied his own concepts to Monk's singular compositions. I have one gripe, though: the longest song on the disc is the least interesting, the standard "Sweet And Lovely" (everything else is a Monk original). (DBW)

Mulligan Meets Monk (1957)
Riverside would try anything to get Monk across to the jazz-buying public. Here he's paired with Gerry Mulligan, a dominant influence on cool jazz, and jazz's defining baritone sax player. But Mulligan's out of his element and sounds uncomfortable, except for his tender reading of Monk's best-known tune, "Round Midnight." (DBW)

Thelonious In Action: Recorded At The Five Spot Cafe (1958)
Riverside didn't record Monk and Trane at the Five Spot, but they did record a follow-up engagement with Johnny Griffin on tenor. Alongside stalwarts like "Evidence" and "Rhythm-A-Ning" you'll find rarities "Light Blue" and "Coming On The Hudson." (DBW)

Misterioso (1958)
More live recordings of some of Monk's more familiar tunes ("In Walked Bud"). Tenor speedster Johnny Griffin is talented, but doesn't fit into Monk's mode the way Charlie Rouse would. (DBW)

Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk (1958)
In his one recording for Atlantic, Monk sat in with Blakey's high profile combo for a set consisting chiefly of his compositions (five out of six). So it was a good career advancement move, but musically it's far from a success. A lot of 50s jazz LPs have extreme stereo separation, but in this case it reinforces the sense that Monk (solely in your right speaker) is on his own: as the Messengers play off each composition's changes without regard for the rhythmic and melodic specifics, Monk keeps nudging them with fragments of the original tune, usually to no avail ("In Walked Bud"). The set list focuses on Monk's faster songs ("Blue Monk" excepted), keeping the work even more squarely in the hard bop idiom of the day. Definitely representative of the period, and Blakey's always worth hearing, but it's one of the least Monkish recordings in the Monk oeuvre. (DBW)

The Thelonious Monk Orchestra At Town Hall (1959)
A live recording of arrangements by Hall Overton, who often took the solos right from previous Monk recordings and wrote them out for a large group. Sounds like a strange idea, but it adds interest and excitement ("Little Rootie Tootie," which was already one of my favorite less-known Monk tunes) while leaving room for fresh solos from the participants. In particular, Monk's solo on "Rhythm A Ning" is far lusher than his usual interpretation, while Rouse's unforced ease with the material foreshadows the decade-plus that he would hold down the horn chair in Monk's quartet. Meanwhile, the unusual context coupled with top-notch players brings out the best in both familiar (true confession: "Off Minor" has never quite done it for me) and overlooked ("Friday The 13th") compositions. So it's the rare album that's equally rewarding whether you've been listening to Monk for decades or are first checking him out. (DBW)

5 By Monk By 5 (1959)
Tenor Charlie Rouse's first time recording with Monk in a small group context (he'd also been part of the Town Hall orchestra), and he would hold the chair for the next decade; the other horn is Thad Jones. (DBW)

Alone In San Francisco (1959)
Solo Monk, with the loosest interpretations of classics like "Blue Monk" and "Ruby, My Dear" that I've ever heard. He also includes four standards, and two new originals: "Bluehawk," and the bizarre "Round Lights." All the cuts except one were first takes, and he must have been in remarkably good form: the rhythmic invention is outstanding even for him. A solo piano album for people like me, who don't like solo piano albums. (DBW)

At The Blackhawk (1960)
Charlie Rouse swings hard on yet another live album, with two extra horn players added to the quartet. Some rarely recorded tunes including the new "Worry Later"; a great extended version of "Round Midnight" and the CD release has two bonus tracks. (DBW)

Monk In France (1961)
The last Riverside release; Rouse and the leader are joined by bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop, a quartet which would remain in place for some time. (DBW)

Monk's Dream (1962)
Monk's fame was finally starting to catch up with his ability, and this was the first record under a shiny new contract with Columbia. Like much of his 60s work, it consists largely of earlier compositions re-recorded (title track), and was a commercial success but not as seminal as his 40s and 50s work. There is one new song ("Bright Mississippi") and the three standards - "Just A Gigolo"; "Body And Soul" - are beautifully done. (DBW)

Criss Cross (1963)
Repeating the formula of Monk's Dream - some rarely recorded songs ("Hackensack," "Eronel, "Think Of One"), a couple of standards ("Don't Blame Me") - and it still works, roughly speaking, though nothing's really new. The CD reissue has a bonus version of "Pannonica." (DBW)

Monk In Tokyo (1963)
A live recording; Butch Warren replaced Ore at this point. (DBW)

Big Band And Quartet In Concert (1963)

It's Monk's Time (1964)
As on the other Columbia LPs, Monk breathes life into standards ("Nice Work If You Can Get It"), old originals ("Shuffle Boil"), and a new tune ("Stuffy Turkey"). Ben Riley replaced Dunlop. (DBW)

Live At The IT! Club (1964)
Though I carp about Monk re-recording so many of his classic tunes on vinyl during the 60s, his band was doing a great job of playing them, and this double album demonstrates that convincingly. To top things off, there's my favorite performance of my favorite Monk tune, "Evidence." Rouse and the other band members (Larry Gales replacing Warren) are all at their best, and Monk is... well, who else? The 1998 double-CD release has even more tracks; I'd better pick that one up. Don't mind me... talking to myself.(DBW)

Live At The Jazz Workshop (rec. 1964, rel. 1982)
Not released until after Monk's death, a double-LP exploring roughly the same material as IT! Club. (DBW)

Monk. (1965)
Nearly all standards this time - the Gershwins' "Liza"; Duke-Harburg's "April In Paris"; Berlin's "I Love You" - and the interpretations aren't anything special to my ears. Monk also warms up "Pannonica" and "Teo," but the closest he comes to a new tune is a re-worked "This Old Man," titled "Children's Song (That Old Man)." (DBW)

Solo Monk (1965)
Like it says. (DBW)

Straight No Chaser (1967)
This was the first Monk record I ever heard, and I may rate it higher than it merits, considering that none of his compositions are new. Some familiar tunes ("Locomotive," the title song) get extended quartet treatments, and the rarely-recorded "We See" is a pleasure to hear. Rouse is also in exceptional form throughout, and Monk's solo take on Ellington's "I Didn't Know About You" is moving. The record's strangest feature is a rendition of "Kojo No Tsuki," a 30s pop song by R. Taki that gets a powerful, swinging reading here. Make sure you get the new CD release, which contains full length versions of three tunes which were originally edited down to fit on LP, plus a brief version of the standard "This Is My Story, This Is My Song" and a take of "Green Chimneys," a later version of which turned up on Underground. (DBW)

Live In Paris 1967 (Thelonious Monk Nonet: rec. 1967, rel. 1988)
The quartet plus additional horns, including leading lights Phil Woods, Clark Terry and Griffin. (DBW)

Underground (1968)
Worth getting for the outré album cover alone, but the music is equally rewarding, with (as far as I know) his last new compositions of note: "Ugly Beauty," the 29-bar "Green Chimneys," and "Boo Boo's Birthday." (DBW)

Monk's Blues (1968)
Oliver Nelson inflates Monk's wiry tunes into L.A. big band arrangements, which is odd enough. Odder still to hear Monk banging away in his usual clattery manner in the middle of it all. Longtime producer Teo Macero even slipped a couple of his own tunes into the mix ("Consecutive Seconds"). It's almost worth hearing solely because the contrast will increase your appreciation of the Town Hall recording. But once you've spun this a couple of times, you'll probably head right back to the relative comfort of Monk working with one of his small combos. The end of his tenure at Columbia. (DBW)

Straight No Chaser: Music From The Motion Picture (rec. 1956-68, rel. 1989)
I always thought this was just a compilation, but most of the material appears here for the first time: mostly unaccompanied piano recorded in informal settings, plus some stuff from a 1968 European tour by a rarely heard octet. The solo piano includes a great early reading of "Pannonica" and broad takes on some standards ("Don't Blame Me" shows a facility rarely heard on Monk's own compositions). The octet plays an interesting arrangement of "Evidence," and then there's an unsatisfying Frankenstein track with excerpts from an octet rehearsal bracketing a live Monk solo ("I Mean You"). Then there are a few previously released recordings: "Trinkle Tinkle" featuring Trane; "Ugly Beauty" and the title track. Overall, it's not comprehensive enough for collectors, and too obscure for novices. (DBW)

Pure Monk (rel. 1970)
The reverse situation: I initially reviewed this under the impression that it was a real album, but it's actually solo selections from earlier LPs. Skip it. (DBW)

The London Collection (1971)
A 3-CD set containing Monk's last studio recordings. (DBW)

Well, you needn't stick around here any longer.

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