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Down by the Riverside: Thelonious Monk’s High-Water Mark

The Complete Riverside Recordings comprises 15 discs' worth of raw material to sift through, a formidable task with endless rewards.
Thelonious Monk
The Complete Riverside Recordings

How do you account for the singularity of Thelonious Monk? Robin D. G. Kelley spent over 600 pages working it out in a landmark biography, and Geoff Dyer imagined his way into Monk’s world for a jarring vignette in his celebrated book But Beautiful. It’s no surprise, however, that Monk emerges most forcefully in the music, and the best place to discover that undiscovered country is on Monk’s work for Riverside, a series of sessions that stretched from 1955 to 1961. The best, indeed, the only place to uncover the unending sweep and scale of that material is on the newly reissued The Complete Riverside Recordings, a 15-disc reprint of a 1986 collection from Concord that lays out the entirety of the sessions, as well as a series of live recordings, including seminal sets at Town Hall and the Five Spot.

Monk recorded a raft of crucial sides at Blue Note (captured in the essential two-album sequence Genius of Modern Music, Vols. 1 and 2), a clutch of classics for Prestige, and would go on to do brilliant work at Columbia, but he never topped what he did here. To have this material back in print, so comprehensively annotated by producer Orrin Keepnews and so beautifully packaged, is a true cause for celebration.

The ground Monk covered during this five-year period was so fertile that it’s hard to isolate the highlights, or the representative albums: 1957’s Monk’s Music and Brilliant Corners of course, but what about 1958’s Five Spot set Misterioso? Or 1956’s standards collection The Unique Thelonious Monk? 1955’s Plays Duke Ellington? The surprisingly sympathetic 1957 pairing with Gerry Mulligan, Mulligan Meets Monk? It may not be his most celebrated collection but I can’t shake, Thelonious Alone in San Francisco.

The truth is that Monk was never less than electrifying during the Riverside era, and when he wasn’t going at it alone, he was surrounded by many of the period’s most potent players, a murderer’s row that stretches close to a mile: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Mulligan, Art Blakey, Paul Chambers, Coleman Hawkins, Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Phil Woods, and longtime collaborator Charlie Rouse, to name just a few. On the strength of these recordings, it’s not hard to make a case for Monk as the preeminent jazz artist of the second half of the 20th century. Monk is essential, in other words, and if you don’t know his work on Riverside, you don’t know Monk.

When this set was originally released, at the dawn of the CD era, it was a showcase for what the new medium could do: it won Grammys for Best Historical Album and for Best Album Notes in 1986, and exposed the box set’s potential to reframe an artist’s legacy. Nearly 30 years later, when by most accounts the CD is in a death spiral, The Complete Riverside still makes a powerful argument in favor of the format. With its ability to stack a manageable number of tracks on a single disc and its dogged insistence on album art and liner notes — not to mention the physical significance of the object itself, the pride of place this thing will take on your shelf — the CD remains the best medium for a project of this magnitude.

The technology of the 21st century has only enhanced the range of the project. One minor drawback to The Complete Riverside Recordings in the CD era was that the character of the individual albums dissolved behind the blow-by-blow chronological account of the recordings themselves. For instance, it’s harder to appreciate the full impact of Brilliant Corners when “Brilliant Corners” isn’t the opening track of the Brilliant Corners sessions. But iTunes make it possible to sequence the tracks at will, letting you build the individual albums yourself. In the extreme, then, it gives listeners 15 discs’ worth of raw material to sift through, a formidable task with endless rewards.

This task is formidable because The Complete Riverside is riddled with highlights, both micro and macro: the ghostly notes that introduce “(I Don’t Stand) A Ghost of a Chance with You” and Coleman Hawkins’ graceful presence throughout the Monk’s Music sessions; the resolute melancholy of the chorus of “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie”, and the epic swell of the dense, interlocking rhythmic movements on “Bemsha Swing”, among many others. In a review of another Monk release on PopMatters, I quoted a favorite passage from Bob Dylan’s 2004 memoir Chronicles: when a young, Greenwich Village-era Dylan introduced himself to Monk as a folksinger, the pianist replied, “We all play folk music.”

In Monk’s hands, in his carefully punctuated phrases and deliberate fingertips, the “folk” appears as another wave in the avant-garde: a crystallized catalog of a century’s worth of field hollers and minuets, Ellingtonian shades and stress marks, distilled into a latitudinal slice of the always-present and the never-ending future. When I listen to Monk, I’m reminded of the sound and intensity of William Faulkner at his best: both offer an aesthetic of excess that is mostly economy, piling sounds and images on top of one another in baroque layers of tone and overtone, “strophe and antistrophe”, to borrow one of Faulkner’s favorite constructions. But in both Faulkner and Monk, there’s a stubborn minimalism lining the maximalism, a sensibility that shows a startling appreciation for the power of space and silence.

Monk, in short, is a paradox. The appeal of this paradox is perhaps best captured in the title of a classic entry from the 1968 Columbia release Underground: “Ugly Beauty”. “Ugly” works here because it captures the jarring, unnerving approach to both tonality and rhythm, the slow skid of the keyboard spilling into itself, that is one of Monk’s musical fingerprints; “beauty”, too, because there’s no other word for the lilting rise of “Round Midnight”, for the artist’s ability to transform a stack of oblong bricks into a near-perfect circle.

In a larger sense, this designation of “Ugly Beauty” also describes of the whole project of modern jazz. Even placed alongside his most-celebrated peers in the movement though, it’s Monk who negotiates the distance between expectation and innovation with the greatest degree of grace. Critics often rely on the adjective “angular” to describe the effect of Monk’s playing. This is a useful term, but perhaps for less-than-obvious reasons: he captures the sound of an artist leaning forward, not just to peek around the corner or to catch the breeze of the future, but to stabilize himself somehow. So the sound of angularity that seems so clear to his listeners might also be the sound of Monk navigating a turbulent, oblique world.

Completists will rejoice at this reissue, but even those with a gentler cast of mind should think about what the set offers: an unvarnished and intricately detailed portrait of Thelonious Monk at his most powerful. The obvious knock on a collection of this immensity is that the price tag — and the staggering comprehensiveness — might scare off the casual fan. But it’s difficult to imagine the existence of a casual Monk fan. Once he makes his mark, every mark he makes becomes worthy of examination. The 22-minute version of “Round Midnight” is as easy to embrace as its six-minute counterpart, and a 55-second false take of “Monk’s Mood”, with the pianist’s verbal exclamations intact, stands tall next to the stately “Ruby, My Dear”. His playing made a virtue of transparent obscurity, so it’s altogether fitting that there’s no scrap too obscure to ignore. Monk’s music remains bottomless, and this set, with its generous liner notes and expansive sweep, gives his admirers a little more to reach for.