How many Thelonious Monk recordings does a body need, and which ones?
This set presents a considerable claim on the attention, being a selection of live recordings from concerts by versions of the longstanding and (nearly enough) last Monk quartet: Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone accompanied by a range of bassists and drummers. It might be suggested that Ben Riley is an even more accomplished drummer than Frankie Dunlop, but here this is pretty well irrelevant, like the limited reputations attached to bassists Larry Gales, Butch Warren and John Ore. They were all very good and at times brilliant, and in this scrupulous selection compiled from five concerts (with a sixth represented by three live performances on the DVD which comes with the compact disc) there was no need to make do with much less than every player at his best.
This isn’t exactly the best Monk concert, simply because there’s no solo from the boss—to name one standard item from the standard live programme. These performances are all quartet performances, all outstandingly relaxed, not to say very lively, and even extraverted when appropriate. The repertoire is all Monk tunes, including the always curiously co-credited “‘Round About Midnight”.
There’s a twenty minute segment excerpted from a Paris Alhambra concert dated 22 February 1945, beginning with, I think, the disc’s only slightly fuzzy moments. The sound opens up for a very spacey “Blue Monk”, whose great internal variety allows a transition in the pause which follows, into “Ruby, My Dear”. Butch Warren is magnificent, Ben Riley is Ben Riley, and they both support a wonderfully melodious and less-idiosyncratic-than-usual piano solo from the master, perfectly in keeping with Charlie Rouse at his lyrical best (which is how these performances tended to start).
Rouse proceeds next—in a track recorded almost three years before—to take “Rhythm-a-Ning” at a wonderfully fleet pace with John Ore rumbling out his deep swing. Monk is to the fore of the ensemble, opening and then playing obbligati with contrapuntal stretches over the first part of Rouse’s solo. His close friend Gerry Mulligan never had a monopoly on counterpoint.
Presumably, during the rest of the solo he got up and danced / conducted helpfully before the rhythm pair, prior to resuming his seat at the piano and delivering the sort of racing performance that is the most startling thing for anybody seeing him for the first time on television or video. The timing is split-second and the group integration perfect.
Frankie Dunlop’s drum solo isn’t the only one in this selection, and after maybe seven minutes of a nine minute jam, both the harmonic structure and the lines have been so thoroughly installed in the listener that the drummer is improvising perfectly recognisable inventive choruses, attentive to the rhythmic patterns implicit in the composition. Listening to this is like dancing—only considerably easier.
Readers interested enough to check out Monk’s website for his discography should proceed to the bottom of the discography page and click on “Another Discography”. It’s quicker than typing out the complex several-stage address which doesn’t get you to that page directly! You’ll be able to find out what else Monk and his men did on all the nights represented (presumably at their best) on this CD / bonus disc. If there are enough performances of a sufficient number of tunes, it would be nice to have a collection of his solo spots from a range of concerts, as another CD in this series intended to bring out at least the more obscure of the high quality items (very high quality items) on “Another Discography”. The least obscure titles are in other and bigger hands, and the present CD does suggest that its material is in very competent hands—in addition to being pretty remarkable. Joy to the World!