Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk (Blue Note, 1994)

Brought to Blue Note Records by saxophonist and A&R man Ike Quebec when the label was looking to branch out from traditional to modern jazz, the iconoclastic composer and pianist Thelonious Monk recorded for the Blue Note from 1947-1952. No stranger to the jazz scene, Monk was center stage at the bebop evolution (read Robin D.G. Kelly’s excellent biography for all the details) and also played with the likes of Coleman Hawkins during the war years. The first three discs of this collection draw together all of the master and alternate takes available from Monk’s work as a leader on the label. The fourth disc is something of an outlier, an audience recording of Monk leading a group live at the Five Spot in New York City featuring the saxophonist John Coltrane. Though Monk was misunderstood by many at the time as someone who was trying to attack settled beliefs and the institution of jazz, he never lost sight of his single minded pursuit of excellence, one that would lead him from being an outsider to the cover of Time Magazine in fifteen years. Some of Monk’s best trio work would come in a late 1947 session that included recordings of original classics like “Well You Needn’t” “Ruby My Dear” and “Introspection” along with excellent performances of the standards “April in Paris” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It.” Thelonious Monk had a simpatico relationship with the vibraphonist Milt Jackson, the two palpably clicked, playing a joyous romp of music on a 1948 session including “Evidence,” “Mysterioso,” and “Epistrophy.” Jackson returned with the drummer Art Blakey in tow for a July 1951 session that showed the three developing close knit percussive tapestries on the likes of “Four in One,” “Criss Cross” and “Straight, No Chaser.” He wraped up his Blue Note recording tenure with a sextet session including two saxophones and trumpet. They developed a full and brash sound on the likes of “Skippy,” “Hornin’ In” and “Let’s Cool One.” The final disc of the set poses something of a jarring juxtaposition, moving from relatively brief but fairly well recorded discs (for the period) to lengthy live explorations of Monk compositions heard on a low-fidelity recording. Despite the sound quality, the music is quite exciting, Monk is in fine form and Coltrane sounds particularly inspired. His life was changing drastically, and Monk was midwifing his musical re-birth that would lead to super-stardom. It is said that during Thelonious Monk’s live performances, he would occasionally leave the piano and engage in a shuffling dance around the bandstand. This is a completely appropriate response to his music which is playful and filled with joy. Complete Blue Note Recordings - amazon.com

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