Thelonious Monk owns one of the most vaunted discographies in jazz, and his work in the period covered by The Definitive Thelonious Monk on Prestige and Riverside is frequently recognized as his strongest. Yet the trouble with trying to evaluate Monk is that his work consistently resists description. Bob Dylan’s famous line about Robbie Robertson’s “mathematical guitar genius,” for instance, might be appropriate to Monk’s piano playing. But, for Monk, the math is often a bit fuzzy: asymmetrical and angular, occasionally lacking a stable center but always probing the edges with boldness. To complicate the metaphor a bit, Monk is a prime number, indivisible by anything but himself. And his music is thick with conflict, humor, and daring.
The years represented in this anthology, 1952-61, include at least one unimpeachably classic LP—Brilliant Corners from 1956—and a whole host of brilliant performances. (In his typically incisive liner notes, Ashley Kahn makes a case for 1957’s Monk’s Music as the period’s second full-length masterpiece.) And while both “Pannonica” and the title track from Brilliant Corners appear here, these are probably best experienced in their original settings. We get a similar kind of elliptical vision of Monk’s career at other points in this set as well. For example, Monk’s first LP for Riverside, 1955’s Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, is represented in a single track, a brilliant take on “Caravan.” Yet that track alone can’t complete the picture because, in his ability to pioneer tonal colors and rhythmic shapes, Monk makes a solid case for himself as the preeminent heir to Ellington, an argument regrettably foreshortened by the contents of this anthology.
Monk’s originals from this period, however, make his genius plain. The austere beauty of the solo version of “‘Round Midnight” is startling in its intensity, and the take on “Ruby, My Dear,” from 1959’s From Thelonious in San Francisco, is perhaps the best place to access the plaintive heart of that standard. “Well, You Needn’t” provides a nice look at Monk’s work as a bandleader, as he guides the song along at a clipped pace punctuated by the tenor interplay between John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins. Along this same line, the collection offers a generous index of Monk’s collaborators through the 50s, a list that includes some of mid-century jazz’s most celebrated artists: Coltrane, Hawkins, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, and Art Blakey among them. (The Rollins’ track “I Want to Be Happy” is positively incandescent and should send listeners scraping for the original LP, Thelonious Monk/Sonny Rollins.)
Elsewhere, “Tea for Two,” with its roots in the musical theater, signals Monk’s firm grasp on the vernacular—he reshapes and recontextualizes the song, permanently marking it in the mind of anyone who encounters it. Another Dylan reference seems appropriate: in his memoirs, Dylan recalls an early encounter with Monk wherein the songwriter introduced himself as a folk singer, to which the piano player flatly replied, “We all play folk music.” It’s a penetrating insight, since Monk’s history, from his birth in rural North Carolina to his life in uptown Manhattan and beyond, is shot through with traces of the church, the street, and the barrio. And strains of all this and more reveal themselves in his surging tangle of rhythm, melody, and sonic texture.
The Definitive Thelonious Monk is clearly designed to offer a more modest approach to the Riverside years than the 15-disc Complete Riverside Recordings. The gesture deserves applause: this is a fine overview. But given the breadth of the artist’s Riverside and Prestige catalogs, it’s hard to shake the sense that this collection conceals at least as much as it reveals.