Thelonious. The name, like the man, is unique, exceptional. We are, thankfully, at a point where the first name will suffice, and it is generally understood that Thelonious Sphere Monk is one of the singular, and important, artists in all jazz, as well as one of the authentic geniuses America can proudly claim as a native son. It wasn’t always thus. Although commonly acknowledged as one of the founding fathers—along with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and Miles Davis—of bebop, Monk was the quintessential “musician’s musician”, mostly respected, if not entirely understood, by colleagues. Even so, the prevailing judgment—promulgated by many less than perspicacious critics of the time—was that he was too eccentric and his compositions too difficult. Moreover, an inability to easily describe his music diminished the prospect of any type of commercial breakthrough. When, in 1954, he signed on with the upstart label, Riverside Records, his contract with the well-established Prestige label was bought out for $108.27.
This reissue, then, of Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington is significant on a variety of levels. For starters, it is an outstanding album, and tends to exist as an overlooked gem in the Monk discography, sandwiched as it is between his earlier “genius of modern music” stage and the mid ‘50s through mid ‘60s, when he made his most enduring work. It is also important for what it signified, in 1955, to have Monk cover Ellington—already a legend with a capital L—(though he certainly had some major statements of his own yet to make). On the surface, Ellington and Monk could not be more dissimilar; in terms of personality, style, and what might unimaginatively, if accurately, be called “universal appeal”. Of course, understanding that the things Monk did, on his own terms, now attract comparisons with Ellington—at least in terms of influence and signature tunes routinely performed as standards—speaks volumes. Lastly, this release is a most welcome tribute to its producer, Orrin Keepnews, and the new series of reissues fittingly called the “Keepnews Collection”. If these remasters help even a few folks learn who Keepnews is and what he has meant to the music, all the better. For those not in the know, now hear this: Orrin Keepnews is one of the most important producers of the last century, and his innumerable achievements should be appreciatively venerated.
In the expanded liner notes, Keepnews recalls the circumstances under which Monk—largely considered damaged goods, or at best a risky wildcard for any record label—came to Riverside, a relationship that produced subsequent masterpieces such as Brilliant Corners, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, Monk’s Music, and 5 By Monk By 5 (arguably Keepnews’ finest hour). His strategy was to have Monk dedicate an entire album to Ellington, not so much to sanitize Monk’s vision, but to ingeniously allow it to fully flower in the context of already classic recordings. Keepnews was one of the first to grasp not only how important Monk was, but how crucial he could (and should) be in the advancement of jazz music: he understood, displaying a judicious acumen that served him well thereafter, that with the appropriate primer, a wider audience would inexorably learn to love Thelonious.
In a move that managed to be both safe and inspired, veteran sidemen Oscar Pettiford and Kenny Clarke were recruited to handle bass and drum duties, respectively. Both of these men, like Monk, were veterans of the nascent bebop scene, their names associated with many seminal early bop recordings. Appropriately, all three have sufficient familiarity with the songs chosen, and with one another, to impart an effortless solidarity of purpose upon these proceedings. The end result contains exactly what one might expect: an abundance of riches packaged as an enticing sampler of Ellingtonia interpreted by a genuine iconoclast.
It only takes the first, familiar notes of the opening selection to make one thing abundantly clear: Monk playing Ellington makes perfect sense. The very calculated placement of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” at the forefront of this set is both a statement and an affirmation: this will be a celebratory affair, and it’s going to swing. Clarke employs laid back brushwork to satisfying effect, while Pettiford establishes a stone solid, swinging (yes, that word again) foundation, freeing Monk to dance circles around the theme. A faithful, if slightly safe rendition of “Sophisticated Lady” follows, which puts to rest any lingering doubts (unfathomable as it is to consider that there ever were any) that Monk, the “irreverent” outsider, had fully absorbed the tradition well before he began incorporating his own innovations. “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” almost implores the presence of a saxophone or trumpet to accentuate the plaintive mood; but then Pettiford accelerates the pace with his irrepressible groove, and once more Monk reconstructs the Duke with his own peerless logic.
“Black and Tan Fantasy” is—or becomes—a composition Monk had to cover, and while it retains Ellington’s elegant imprint, we hear more of that Cheshire Cat who had already spent a decade confounding the imperceptive critics: in under four minutes, it’s possible to experience what is at once so enthralling yet indescribable about Monk’s technique. The tune never ventures anywhere near chaos or affectation; indeed it is simple to nod along without missing a beat. And yet, if one listens again, a bit more closely, the piano is (ever so subtly, ever so slyly) making sounds quite unlike anything before or since: Monk plays it straight, yet stops, circles back, fills in every appropriate space with old school stride that recalls Luckey Roberts, then, on a dime, shifts into syncopated flourishes that incorporate bebop—and beyond. Dissonant, angular, twisting, coruscating: those who attempt to describe Monk’s playing tend to use the same words time and again, partly because it’s inevitable, mostly because they are accurate. Monk, after a while, begins to remind you of a wily raconteur, retelling a funny story that you’ve never heard before.
More of the same follows, with “Mood Indigo” and the exuberant “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart”. Perhaps the most effective, and emotional selection is “Solitude”, which features Monk, appropriately, alone at the piano. Here his unparalleled use of space and silence is exhibited to stunning effect; like any true genius, it sounds almost easy the way he does it, and exactly no one has come close to replicating his style in the fifty-something years since this recording. As the man himself once observed, he used the same notes—just differently. Finally, a righteous romp of “Caravan” closes the set on an exultant note: Clarke lends his most perceptible support, and Pettiford remains unflappably cool in the pocket. Mission accomplished; Monk not only delivers an unadulterated homage to Ellington, he somehow manages to make the master sound even more ahead of his time than he already was.
Implausible, yet easy to believe that only a year later, Monk dropped Brilliant Corners, the title track alone so intricate and demanding that it frustrated the very capable cast of characters assembled to tackle it (notably Sonny Rollins, who was no stranger to the woodshed). A year after that an up and coming saxophonist named John Coltrane joined his group. Nothing was ever the same—for him, or for us—after that.