Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall

(Blue Note)

Maybe the most ambitious - and the most successful - of those he has produced up to now, the double LP titled That's The Way I Feel Now (1984) was the tribute album that "producer-as-director" Hal Willner dedicated to Thelonious Monk, the "Genius Of Modern Music" who had died two years earlier. A stellar cast, by the way, with "famous jazz people" (Carla Bley, Johnny Griffin, Barry Harris, Steve Lacy, Elvin Jones, Gil Evans), "strange rockers" (NRBQ, Donald Fagen, Was (Not Was), Todd Rundgren, Joe Jackson, Chris Spedding) and "some people really impossible to pin down" (Dr. John, Gary Windo, John Zorn, Schockabilly) all working hard in order to offer a personal interpretation of the pianist's compositions. Compositions that an angular language, a dry kind of lyricism and Monk's highly personal approach to the instrument had made impossible to appreciate beyond a highly selective group of peers, and whose highly innovative qualities are maybe best presented in the concise length of the recordings he made in the late 40s and early 50s now featured in the twin volumes titled Genius Of Modern Music and in the two albums of solo piano performances that he recorded in the 50s, Thelonious Himself (which curiously offers a trio performance of Monk's Mood with John Coltrane and Wilbur Ware) and Alone In San Francisco.

Who knows who among the "non jazzers/non avant-gardists" of today could possibly be featured on a (highly hypothetical) That's The Way I Feel Now, Vol. II? Monk's compositions are quite hard to play well (it's a well-known fact that during the sessions for the album Brilliant Corners, which saw the participation of highly skilled musicians such as Sonny Rollins and Max Roach, there were no complete takes; hence, a meticulous splicing work by producer Orrin Keepnews), even if it's true that highly developed playing skills by themselves do not necessarily make for fantastic results (for instance, Six Monk's Compositions (1987), the album that Anthony Braxton recorded at the end of the 80s, is not a good example of a musician on the same wavelength as the compositions). While "pretty adequate" performances of Monk's compositions are - alas! - quite common, it's almost paradoxical that the best interpreter of Monk was a saxophone player, the late Steve Lacy (in a sea of titles I'd suggest two group efforts dating from the end of the 50s, Reflections and The Straight Horn Of Steve Lacy; and two fantastic albums for solo soprano saxophone which came out about thirty years later: Only Monk and More Monk); it's also quite strange that some of the best Monk-like results came from Europe: from the (so-called) "Dutch School" aesthetics of Misha Mengelberg and the Instant Composers Pool (a good specimen being the CD from the end of the 80s titled Two Programs - The ICP Orchestra Performs Nichols - Monk); funny how the first version of Epistrophy appearing on Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall so closely resembles the one I heard in concert a few years ago, performed by a quartet of Misha Mengelberg, Michael Moore, Ernst Glerum and Han Bennink.

The release of Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall is to be applauded for two main reasons (the importance of both Monk and Coltrane is to be taken for granted): the first one being that, though they played together for more than a few months, not much was recorded (only a few tracks in 1957 and 1958, which appeared on the albums Thelonious Monk And John Coltrane and Monk's Music, besides the already mentioned Monk's Mood on Thelonious Himself), every new appearance being good news; the second reason is that the original concert was recorded with crystal-clear clarity, which makes appreciating the quartet's instrumental interplay quite easy. We also have a nice booklet with useful news and six (brief) critical essays to help readers get a more rounded picture.

The quartet's performance took place on November 29, 1957. It was for a benefit concert which also saw the presence of such names as Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Chet Baker and Sonny Rollins. Two performances, at 8.30 and Midnight (it's easy to hear the difference in the atmosphere of the two quartet performances, which are also different for the repertory played). Summer 1957 had seen the quartet playing at the Five Spot Café; there, a Coltrane not yet too sure of himself (and, obviously, not yet the innovator who will soon change jazz so deeply) became fluent in the pianist's logic, as it's apparent here both in the heads and the solos.

The beautiful arpeggios of Monk's Mood make for a nice opening; we also have an excellent performance of Crepuscule With Nellie, one of the most beautiful compositions in the Monk canon; Coltrane's work is appropriately fast on Evidence, Nutty and in the closing track, Epistrophy. Monk's own work is excellent - maybe responding to a high-quality piano, his "comping" a real joy. Nice rhythm section, with bass player Ahmed Abdul-Malik working as an anchor and drummer Shadow Wilson playing counterpoint to Monk's piano on bass and snare drums - listen to his cymbal work on Epistrophy. The second performance is typical of a later hour, with longer solos; here we have Bye-Ya, Sweet And Lovely, Blue Monk and a shorter Epistrophy, all very good.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2005 | Oct. 6, 2005