Thelonious Monk: The Definitive Thelonious Monk on Prestige & Riverside

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

Thelonious Monk

The Definitive Thelonious Monk on Prestige & Riverside

Label: Prestige
US Release Date: 2010-08-24
UK Release Date: 2010-08-24

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.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.