MONK: Rhythm-a-Ning (2 tks); Crepuscle With Nellie (2 tks); Six in One; Well, You Needn’t. Pannonica (2 tks). Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are. Light Blue. TINDLEY: By and By / Thelonious Monk Quintet: Charlie Rouse, Barney Wilen, t-sax; Thelonious Monk, pn; Sam Jones, bs; Art Taylor, dm / Sam Records/Saga SRS-1-CD
A few years ago, when I was reviewing for a music magazine, I had the pleasure of writing about the jazz-influenced American and European film scores of the 1950s and early ‘60s being released in outstanding boxed sets by Jason Lee Lazell of Moochin’ About records. The only score he missed, I mentioned to him, was Monk’s for Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Lazell told me that the only way you could get the music was from a print of the actual film, which had only been issued on VHS back in the 1980s, was out of print, and very expensive (it was selling, at the time for roughly $200 on eBay). He said that there appeared to be no stand-alone recording of the actual music.
Well, here it is—a whopping 58 years after it was recorded, due for release on June 16. The good news is that Thelonious Monk is still considered a major figure in jazz history, so there are definitely aficionados who will buy it. The sad thing is that, to most younger jazz listeners, Thelonious isn’t even a blip on their musical radar. Tupac Shakur and Louis Armstrong are in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Who’s Thelonious Monk?
For those who don’t know, he was one of the greatest yet fussiest geniuses in jazz. He was notorious for flipping members of his working groups between gigs and even in the middle of a recording contract. Orrin Keepnews recalled a time when he was supervising a Monk album; the leader showed up one week after the first session with three new musicians in tow. He was that fussy. But he was also as hard on himself, and could be very difficult to get to approve takes because he didn’t like his solos. As a composer, he was wholly unique, not fitting into either the swing or bop schools, although his own model as a pianist had been Duke Ellington. He wrote jagged, angular melodies, often with irascible countermelodies pushing hard against them. The late jazz critic Ralph Berton once aptly described him as “the Stravinsky of jazz.” Polyphony was his thing: just listen to Rhythm-a-Ning, Little Rootie Tootie or especially Four in One.
Yet it was as a pianist that Monk drew the most fire from critics. He attacked the keys in a flat-fingered, splayed-hands style that looked for all the world like a rank amateur who never took a lesson in his life, but he knew exactly what he was doing. Behind his back, some musicians referred to him as “Melodious Thunk,” but tt was part of his musical conception. In order to produce music that was rhythmically angular, he had to play the piano in a similar manner. Monk attacked the keyboard the way he did in order to dislocate stress beats and place them in wholly unexpected places: sometimes on 2 and 4, other times on 1 and 3 ½ , elsewhere in the middle of a measure where it made musical sense only to Monk. And it isn’t true that no other jazz pianists admired him. Count Basie adored him; witness that TV jazz special from 1957 where an obviously happy Basie is sitting on the opposite side of the piano, grinning from ear to ear as Monk plays. On the ride home in the cab, Monk turned to his wife Nellie and exploded. “Did you see that m*-f* staring at me?” Nellie replied, “He likes your playing, Thelonious! Be happy!”
Monk was also very self-critical of his own compositions, which is why he wrote so few of them. Considering the length of his career—ranging from his early days at Minton’s Playhouse in 1941 until his last tour with Dizzy Gillespie and the Stars of Jazz in 1971-72 (a tour on which he rarely said a word, even to Dizzy who was one of his closest friends)—Monk’s output is incredibly small, only about three dozen pieces, of which nearly a third are jazz classics (none more so than ‘Round Midnight). Thus this surprisingly wonderful, relaxed session, in which we have complete performances of one new composition (Six in One) and a complete studio performance of Light Blue, is particularly welcome to those of us who still love and honor this quirky but gentle giant of jazz.
It was altogether typical of Monk that even after he agreed to create music for a film, he didn’t bother to look at a script or care where the music fit in. He did sit through a private screening of it in New York a few days before the recording session, but when the time came he and his band just played whatever he wanted which the director then had to cut-and-paste to fit in into the finished product. The session was made, filed away after being snipped up for the film, and then promptly forgotten. Sad to say, this is typically French. Back in 1919, the legendary soprano Emma Calvé made about a dozen records for the French Pathé company, all of which were issued. Evelen years later, they were out of print, so an enterprising classical record collector visited their offices in Paris and asked if they could reissue them. “Calvé?” asked the Pathé executive. “Oh, no, she never recorded for us…she only recorded for La Voix son Maître (His Master’s Voice).” They didn’t even bother to check their own files to see if they had issued those records 11years ago.
Thus producer Zev Feldman, visiting Paris in December 2014, was told that François Le Xuan of Saga Jazz had discovered master tapes of a preciously unissued studio session by Monk made by French producer Marcel Romano. The tape box simply said “Thelonious Monk.” Feldman was duly impressed and thus spent the next two years working with the Thelonious Monk estate to gather in the photos and produce this release. And here it is.
The sound is warm and clear. For whatever lucky reason, the tapes were taken very good care of and did not deteriorate as so many reel-to-reels have over the years. (Even some of the RCA Victor “Living Stereo” tapes oxidized over time, and they had pretty good care.) Of course, I haven’t a clue where this music fit into the film, having never seen it, but it is certainly one of the most relaxed, laid-back Monk sessions I’ve ever heard. Thelonious was obviously in a carefree mood that day. Now, in his case laid-back does not equate to smooth jazz, but by and large this is as close as you’re ever going to get to a late-at-night, deep in the blues Monk album. the playing is so transcendent that it zones you out. You get into the Now listening to these tracks, and the sound quality is so magnificent that it almost sounds as if the band is right in the room with you. I can almost pretend that I’m up at Baroness Nica’s New York apartment around one in the morning, sipping a cocktail and digging this set. Had the band played ‘Round Midnight on this set, that would have made a perfect title for the album. It’s got that kind of vibe about it. Even Well, You Needn’t, normally a very uptempo piece for Monk, is played at a nice medium tempo of the sort that has since disappeared from jazz. Charlie Rouse still has that bluesy edge to his solos that were his trademark, but the rest of the band just floats. Like, way out, man!
And if you want proof of what I stated earlier in this review about Monk’s piano playing, listen carefully to Six in One. This is what I meant about his ability to subtly add or shift the stress beats within a bar to suit his mood. (One other thing: if Monk’s pianism was as bad as they said, why did he almost never slip up or hit a klunker? He always played exactly the “right” notes than he wanted to play.) The two brief takes of Pannonica almost sound shy in comparison to some of his other performances/recordings of this well-known piece. Yes, indeed, Monk was in a relaxed mood for this session.
The recording session sheet reveals other tunes played and recorded that day which, for one reason or another, didn’t make it to CD. Among them is a minute and a half rehearsal of Off Minor, three stabs at Epistrophy (only one of the takes longer than 49 seconds), and two off-the-cuff improvisations. All were false starts or breakdowns. This was a typical Monk recording session: what came out well came out, the rest was to be scrapped. Interestingly, I found his playing in the quartet version of Pannonica even better and tighter than his playing in the two solo takes. Oddly, Barney Wilen misses a note or two here and there, as in the theme statement of Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are, but then again, he wasn’t a regular band member.
Seventeen pages of photos from the session, eight of them in a sort of faded color (they almost look like tinted B&W pics), shows how relaxed the session really was. There are two glimpses of Nica, both times sitting in a corner watching and listening, and two of Nellie, one a close-up and the other a shot of her back as she stood off to the side.
As the set goes on, there are some wonderful surprises, particularly this unusual reading of Light Blue. Art Taylor sets up a backbeat tom-tom rhythm, which gives the piece a wacky sort of feel as if the rest of the band was trying to wrest the tune away from the drum kit…and it ends in the middle of nowhere. Another is the alternate take of Rhythm-a-Ning that starts CD 2, as tight and exciting a performance as you’re likely to hear, considerably different from the tone of the rest of the music. Wilen is terrific on this one while the leader just plays a repeated two-note lick for his first chorus before opening up in the second.
The second CD ends with a 14 minute, 13 second outtake of the making of Light Blue. A lot of time is spent on Taylor playing his weird drum lick. At one point Monk says, “Just keep doin’ it, I’ll come in!” But it’s obvious that neither the drummer nor the rest of the band could figure out what the heck was in Thelonious’ mind. “Just keep counting to yourself!” he shouts at one point, when one of the tenor saxists plays the melody but then drops out. “The…the bass has got to play on the upbeat,” Monk explains to Taylor at one point. “You know when you’re coming in on the downbeat, you’re wrong!” Only Monk could keep this kind of rhythmic oddity clear in his mind. I recalled the old story about Monk rowing a boat in the pond at Central Park one afternoon. The ducks on the pond were quacking in one rhythm, he was rowing in another, and the New York traffic was honking and squealing in their own. “Man, that’s polyphony!” he suddenly exclaimed.
All in all, then, a good set with at least three outstanding performances. Would we think as highly of it had it been originally released in 1960 or ’61? Hard to tell. Sometimes just having a rare set by a jazz legend (witness Bill Evans’ Black Forest set) is enough to spark waves of adulation and awards. But for me, personally, it’s always great to hear Monk play, particularly during this period of time when he was still in his prime.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley