Thelonious Monk / Gerry Mulligan: Mulligan Meets Monk

Thelonious Monk / Gerry Mulligan
Mulligan Meets Monk

First, the music.

At the time of its original issue in late 1957, Mulligan Meets Monk was considered an anomaly. Its two namesake artists represented two different, divergent “schools” of jazz.

Gerry Mulligan, the baritone saxophonist, was associated with the laid-back, relaxed vibe of cool jazz. He had played with Miles Davis’ nonet on the sessions that would become the definitive Birth of the Cool. Around the same time, he had made a name for himself as an arranger and performer with Chet Baker. Thelonious Monk, the pianist, was a cutting-edge, rule-breaking composer and performer, so much so that for the first decade of his career he was often viewed as a misguided outcast. Monk’s harder, angular, almost percussive style was a crucial influence on the bebop style of jazz. Musically, Mulligan and Monk seemed to have little in common.

In reality, as Neil Tesser’s new liner notes for this reissue detail, Mulligan and Monk were good personal friends and often traded thoughts and ideas about composing. Maybe it was the fear of spoiling this relationship that hindered the two men from doing much recording together. In any case, the sessions that became Mulligan Meets Monk occurred by happenstance, as John Coltrane, with whom Monk had been performing at the time, was the Riverside label’s original choice of sax player. Coltrane was unavailable, though, so producer Orin Keepnews decided to have Mulligan take part instead. Good things often happen by accident, and Mulligan Meets Monk is one of those. Over time and several reissues, it has become a favorite among fans of both artists.

The sessions were held over two days in August 1957. The original tracklist features four Monk tunes, one Mulligan composition, and a cover of Russ Columbo’s 1930s hit “Sweet and Lovely”. Technically, Mulligan Meets Monk has its flaws. Occasional notes are flubbed and Mulligan’s and Monk’s styles don’t always gel. On a purely musical level, though, this is an immensely enjoyable album, featuring some excellent compositions played sympathetically and passionately by excellent musicians.

Mulligan shines on the Monk standards “‘Round Midnight” and “Straight, No Chaser”. Never at a loss for notes but not overplaying, either, he works around and between Monk’s rhythms in seemingly effortless fashion. When Mulligan briefly doubles Monk on the “Straight, No Chaser” theme before breaking into solo, it’s a special moment. For his part, Monk’s delivery sounds as sharp and energized as ever.

“Rhythm-A-Ning” and “I Mean You” are uptempo, downright catchy Monk numbers. On the former, it’s fun to hear Mulligan cut loose while Monk maintains an almost atonal rhythm figure underneath. On the latter, Monk’s frenetic ivory tickling is followed by Mulligan’s swaying, almost too cool soloing. At one point on Mulligan’s jaunty, agreeable “Decidedly”, Monk’s playing seems to trip on its own heels, the notes falling over themselves like tumbling dominos. Throughout, it’s fascinating to hear these two prodigious players adapt their styles to one another, on the fly.

Mulligan Meets Monk is anchored by Monk’s regular rhythm section of the time, bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Shadow Wilson. Both stay out of the way of the featured players while still finding ways to add significant, sometimes unorthodox touches. It’s just too bad Ware and Wilson are often buried in the mix.

And that lead leads to the matter of the medium. Mulligan Meets Monk has already been issued on CD several times. This “Original Jazz Classics Remasters” edition reprises the tracklist from the 2003 “20-bit” reissue. Appended to the original album are four alternate takes. None are essential, but they do give a bit more insight into the process of Mulligan and Monk getting comfortable with each other’s playing. Also, the audio has been remastered in 24-bit this time. It sounds clean, maybe a little too clean for its own good, and it does Ware and Wilson few favors.

One has to wonder whether a traditionally ad-hoc, live form like jazz really demands so much digital poring over. At the very least, here is another new opportunity to discover or rediscover a record that, while not exactly a top-tier classic, nevertheless represents the only studio time Mulligan and Monk ever shared. It was time well spent.

RATING 7 / 10