Thelonious Monk has been gone for more than two decades now, but his legacy has lived on in several compilations, live recordings, and “bootleg” recordings of various performances. Now it appears that an agreement between the jazz legend’s estate and Hyena Records will see Monk honored with future releases of previously unreleased material. The first of these efforts comes from a performance at the famed Olympia in Paris in March, 1965. And while some might see this as a blatant attempt to cash in Monk’s bountiful array of great music, it couldn’t be farther from the truth if the music offered is the measuring stick.
Monk was never known for conventions, so it is no surprise that the opening “Rhythm-A-Ning” is a pleasing and soothing offering that has bass player Larry Gales and tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse driving the tune throughout. Although Monk sets the tone with his piano work, it’s his supporting cast that carries the brunt of this track. Rouse is especially playful near the song’s halfway point and the appreciative French crowd replies in kind applause. Here, Monk takes the song by its sonic horns, steering it into another intricate and brilliant bebop pattern. It’s the type of sound that isn’t heard often in contemporary jazz, as Monk’s numerous ideas are executed to perfection and are just as quickly dropped, rarely to be repeated. Playing off himself gets the crowd going again, but Ben Riley’s drumming and Gales’s playing take the song down in tone prior to wrapping up.
“Body & Soul” follows, starting off as a classic, smoky jazz cabaret affair with Monk taking the song wherever he feels necessary. Although one cannot see him playing (on this disc anyway), it is easy to picture the man at the piano with hundreds staring at a man at his musical and creative peak. Although Monk doesn’t have the smoothness or slick style of perhaps Oscar Peterson, the feeling is his notes strike a similar chord with the listener. While a tad under three minutes, this seems like a nice addition. “I Mean You” opens with Rouse and Gales leading the way as Riley keeps his cymbals and drums in check right off the bat. There isn’t as much of a frantic quality here as on the opening song, but there is much more of a naturally paced swing to it. There’s also a very good flow to it, rich in jazz arrangements but with Monk’s unique touches thickly added atop. Monk’s piano comes to the fore five minutes in, with shouts and cues barely audible. Gales’s ascending and descending bass line enters seven minutes in and there is a noticeable drop in the sound (if listening on headphones). Thankfully, this lasts only for a fleeting second or two.
“April in Paris”, an appropriate tune given the time and place of the concert, has Monk sounding for the first minute as if he’s trying something out, but can’t quite find what it is. Nonetheless there is a certain saloon piano playing style embedded in the tune. There isn’t much here, this appearing to be a prelude to “Well You Needn’t”. Some of the crowd recognize the song and clap in appreciation. Monk and Rouse are finding themselves in this song and are often “weaving” their instruments around their band members. Gales and Riley figuratively take a back seat to the duo, but are still holding their own in this moody and melodic tune. Monk gradually becomes the vocal point as he can be heard humming along to his playing, then it’s Gales’s turn to shine.
The trust Monk had in these players is only surpassed by the confidence he had in his music, which for the time and to this day was imaginative and highly evocative. “Bright Mississippi” comes off as a letdown somewhat, with a rather structured opening that gets going on Rouse’s tenor saxophone. Monk takes his piano down a different path but the song ends up headed in the same toe-tapping, head-bobbing direction. It’s perhaps his finest playing on this record, which is saying quite a lot actually. “Epistrophy” has a certain Latin salsa tempo in the opening notes before reverting to a jazz arrangement. Only during a brief frantic drumbeat do things seem to go astray, but Monk reins it in with ease. There is a tension in this song also, something not as obvious in earlier numbers.
If that isn’t enough for you, the album comes with a bonus DVD, including three songs from an Oslo concert the following year. “Lulu’s Back in Town” and “Blue Monk” are featured, and the visual aspect of his playing comes to the fore. But for the listener, it seems that Monk and jazz will always be an unbreakable bond. And deservedly so!