Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. John Coltrane, Blue Train. Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um. Dave Brubeck, Time Out. These are the kinds of albums that represent a safe purchase for people who aren’t too terribly into jazz. Not only are they good starting points to get into these artists’ careers, they’re also just great on their own. The contradiction of palatable high art is a big reason why they have such staying power. They are distillation, introduction and timeless substance all rolled into one package. And if I were to have my say, the album used to represent Thelonious Monk would be Monk’s Music.
1957 was a business-as-usual year for Monk and his colleagues. And back then, business-as-usual meant releasing three albums in one calendar year. This unusual pianist had pretty much secured his legacy as an angular composer and performer earlier that year with the infamous Brilliant Corners. His mid-year collection of (mostly) solo piano, Thelonious Himself, tends to fly below the radar these days, if only because it will forever be overshadowed by the dozens of quality releases that came before and after. By year’s end, Monk did not find himself in the mood to introduce many new songs to his band, then John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Art Blakey, Ray Copeland, Wilbur Ware and Gigi Gryce. So most of Monk’s Music is actually the act of covering old ground. And as the album’s frank liner notes tell us, getting this simple act off the ground was not that easy.
Thelonious Monk’s wife had fallen ill around this time and the worry weighed heavy on his mind. Maybe it was an effort to heal her or maybe it was an attempt to alleviate his own pain, but “Crepuscule with Nelli” was written just prior to the sessions. To the musicians he has worked with, a composition like “Nelli” represents the deep harmonic difficulty of a Monk original, and learning such a song goes beyond the rudimentary understanding of melodic figures and corresponding chords. When Monk tried to teach the song to his band at the start of the sessions, a lot of time was eaten up by the dangerous learning curve that “Nelli” presented. In addition to this, Art Blakey was running an hour late on the first day (which is not bad, considering some musicians I know). Of the two studio sessions the band had booked, the first one was spent dusting cobwebs with hardly any tape rolling. It is said that Monk was even getting a little snippy with Hawkins and Coltrane when progress was low and frustration was high. But this all turned around on the second day, and Monk’s Music is what we have. It must have been a good day.
The album is bulging with standouts. “Ruby, My Dear” and the previously mentioned “Crepuscule with Nelli” give the record a tender balance next to the nuttiness that defined the leader. Monk’s reputation as the man who could weave a wonky melody finds no better examples than in “Well, You Needn’t” and “Epistrophy”, both of which make liberal use of the tri-tone (that’s the “devil’s interval” for those of you who listen exclusively to chant) in their unshakable themes. “Off Minor” is equally intriguing in just how odd and catchy a mess of notes can be in the hands of a goofball like Thelonious Monk. Even Monk’s Music‘s famous cover accurately gets the feeling across. To anyone who has watched footage of this man slamming the keyboard with flat fingers and seemingly immobile wrists, the idea of him striking a pose in a child’s red wagon just isn’t that much of a stretch.
Alternate takes of “Off Minor” and “Crepuscule with Nelli” have been available on previous reissues of Monk’s Music, and they are still here for the 2011 edition. The only track exclusive to this release is “Blues for Tomorrow,” a 13-minute jam that alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce was developing at the time. Producer Orrin Keepnews wanted to use the remaining studio time for something a little different, and this is what he got. Monk doesn’t even play on it. This new release album is bookended by Monk-less performances (the first track is a horn-only, 55-second chart of the hymn “Abide With Me”).
By the year 2011, there just isn’t much that can be said about Monk’s Music anymore. We could discuss the range of talent within the band, but everyone knows how much of a bad ass Coltrane still was after he kicked heroin. Everyone already knows that Art Blakey could pound out one hell of a drum solo while maintaining a steady hi-hat on every other beat. Everyone knows that Coleman Hawkins could play pretty much anything you threw in front of him. And everyone knows that Monk’s Music could be as good as post-bop gets.