"The real power of jazz, and the real innovation of jazz is that a group of people can come together and create art -- improvised art -- and can negotiate their agendas with each other and that negotiation is the art." Despite the structural accuracy of Wynton Marsalis' quote from the new Ken Burns' PBS film series Jazz, those jazz musicians who were willing to stretch the limits of that negotiation -- like Thelonious Monk, for example -- were often marginalized or ignored until the radar of societal convention expanded to admit their sonic contributions to the genre. Such was the case for Monk during his first tour of Japan in 1963.
After signing his first major label contract with Columbia in 1962, Monk’s ominous, periodically dissonant piano stylings were reaching a wider audience—culminating with a Time magazine cover story in February 1964—and their popularity in Japan is evident due to the enthusiastic applause from the audience during the opening bars of “Straight, No Chaser”, “Bemsha Swing”, and “Blue Monk”. Throughout the 81-minute, two-CD performance, the Monk Quartet swings between such standards as “Just a Gigolo” and Tommy Dorsey’s “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” to more introspective, less popular constructions from Monk’s slightly off-kilter psyche.
However, for those listeners thirsty for innovation, who celebrate artists interested in pushing the sonic envelope, Monk’s compositions are the true delights of the Sankei Hall performance on 21 May 1963. On standout tracks “Pannonica”, “Jackie-ing” and “Epistrophy”, the rhythmic fulcrum of drummer Frankie Dunlop and bassist Butch Warren creates an appropriate launching pad that allows the conversations between Monk’s piano and the gritty phrasings of tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse to soar into the unexplored tonal ether. And, thanks in part to the mastering wizardry of Mark Wilder of Sony Music Studios, these songs are every bit as fresh and invigorating as the night of their Tokyo performance almost 38 years ago.