Monk and Coltrane Return to Vinyl: A Conversation with Producer Nick Phillips
The classic 1957 studio encounters between a mature Thelonious Monk and an up-and-coming John Coltrane are now remastered for high-quality vinyl. The music deserves it.
The recordings that Thelonious Monk made for Riverside Records in 1957 that included John Coltrane used to be among the most precious in the history of American music. Here were two of the seminal musicians in jazz, working together as mature mentor (Monk) and rising mentee (Coltrane). By 1959, Coltrane would have left is a long period of development behind and -- with Giant Steps and his participation in Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue -- launching into a period of dynamism and revolution for our traditions.
In 2006, the recordings were remastered and reissued in the wake of two live recordings of Monk and Trane that had emerged in the decade before: a 1993 release of a famous quartet date at the Five Spot and then a 2005 release of the band live at Carnegie Hall in significantly better fidelity. The Riverside studio recordings, many of which barely feature Coltrane and set the pairing in a larger ensemble, were suddenly merely the duo’s origin story, if a compelling one.
This spring Concord and Craft Recordings did the whole exercise again, working with independent producer Nick Phillips, who started at Concord in 1987 when the great Carl Jefferson was still there and who was an assistant to the legendary Orrin Keepnews on the 2006 reissue.
We asked Phillips what the motivation was in reworking this material just 11 years since that last reissue. "I can’t imagine a better time to reissue this -- in Coltrane’s 90th year and Monk’s centennial year.”
Giving Monk and Trane the Grand Vinyl Treatment
The other main reason to reissue the music again is to put it out into the market in a deluxe package and on 180-gram vinyl. Phillips recalls that during the ‘80s when he first started at Concord "there was one reissue after another. All of the back catalog was being reissued on compact disc.” With CD sales diminishing and downloads also turning down, he said, “you now have two sonic extremes: playlists and super-high quality vinyl."
This means not only that the music is available in lush fidelity but also that the package is a stunner: a cool manila folder featuring the signature of the legends, a canceled Monk-Trane postage stamp, and the detailed liner notes of Keepnews with all the great details and stories about the musicians and the recording sessions.
"Having started my music journey in the vinyl era,” says Phillips, "it’s great to see it again. The artwork, the size. And the vinyl LP demands a more active listening experience. There’s also something to be said for buying an album and really getting to know the whole album. For me, an album is a classic when every track is classic.”
Phillips notes that on LP reissues, your art director is key. “They are given lots of latitude to do cool things. The booklet, the photos, the postage-stamp, the manila envelope package -- all very cool. But the key is still the music. Making the transfer to vinyl as good as possible was in Phillips hands.
Phillips explains that master tapes are carefully stored and inventoried at Iron Mountain, a storage service. "You do have to be concerned because over time an analog tape can decompose. All the tapes are stored in a vault at Iron Mountain. They have film archives, master tape archives, data archives. Everything there is given a number, a bar code, and all the information is in a database so you can go in there and retrieve what you need."
“It was my job,” explains Phillips, “along with another person at Concord, to listen to and approve the test pressings. Sometimes you have to have things cleaned up. I use my ears to make sure we have the right pieces of tape. You’re dealing with multiple takes, false starts, all sorts of fragments.”
In the End, the Music Itself
The music that has been massaged and repackaged remains good stuff but not the fireworks that “Coltrane Meets Monk” night suggest. You get four-five studio dates -- a tentative April 1957 recording of “Monk’s Mood” with Wilbur Ware on bass in addition to Monk and Trane, two days in June 1957 with a septet including Coleman Hawkins, and a July date for quartet with Coltrane finally seeming on top of what it really means to play with Monk. The reissue covers three LPs with 20 different tracks but only 11 distinct tunes, what with various false starts and different takes.
The septet material is most notable for involving both Coltrane and Hawkins, both tenor players who are like in every fan’s Top Few of All Time list. Any fair hearing of these tracks concludes that Hawkins, in 1957, was the more comfortable, complete player.
According to Phillips, the original producer of the sessions, Orrin Keepnews, was nevertheless deeply impressed by Coltrane from the very start. "Orrin had heard Trane with Davis before this, and he wasn’t particularly knocked out. After the first complete take of 'Monk’s Mood', Keepnews ran into the studio and asked Trane what his recording situation was. But he had just signed to Prestige."
Phillips agrees, however that "Coltrane was really still a student in 1957. I think it’s fair to say that Coleman Hawkins wins the day on these tunes. Hawkins wasn’t afraid to mix it up with modern players.” If you listen to the two versions of “Off Minor” here, you get a wonderful sense of how brilliant Hawkins could be but in different ways. On the first, he uses his brawny tone and plays a solo that is bluesy and direct. On the second, Hawkins takes a more sly and slippery approach. Both are strong -- and Coltrane sits out.
Both saxophonists solo on the one full take of “Epistrophy”, with Coltrane taking the first solo somewhat carefully and Hawkins busting in after an Art Blakey drum solo and just mopping the floor. There is also a nice “Well, You Needn’t” from this date where Monk pulls some unusual moves during the accompaniment to Coltrane’s solo, playing odd figures in the piano’s high register, for example, and you can hear the younger player thinking his way around it all. Again, Hawkins solos after Blakey and moves across Monk’s tune like he’s an eight-cylander Cadillac, easily handling Monk’s piano approach along the way. Those two sound like equal partners.
"My understanding is that it was Monk’s choice to put the band together like this, withs Trane and Hawkins on the same tracks,” says Phillips. "Hawkins was a mentor to Monk, and now Monk was a mentor to Trane. Keepnews pretty well went along with Monk’s ideas on the musicians to use on a particular project.”
The collection ends with three tracks with Coltrane as the lone horn, and they are wonderful in every respect. “Ruby, My Dear” comes a month after Hawkins played the same tune with Monk. Coltrane sounds elegant and increasingly comfortable. But then “Nutty” and “Trinkle, Tinkle” are better still, with the saxophonist falling into more ease.
Phillips agrees. "The last two tracks are my favorites. By that point, in July of 1957, you hear a more comfortable Coltrane. The Carnegie Hall was definitely after these recordings, and the Five Spot recordings were in September of 1958, so these are all early example of the partnership.”
It has to be said that, beyond the question of Coltrane’s sense of confidence, there's simply brilliant Thelonious Monk pianism throughout these recordings. For me, the solo on “Nutty” is a good as it gets. Monk essentially plays his own melody but reimagines it on two successive choruses with increasing abstraction and creativity. Truly, it is an improvisation that acts as composition or arrangement. It dazzles without being fast or high-wire.
Do you need to spend $85 to deeply enjoy this music? Nope. But Phillips is right: putting on the six sides, reading the Keepnews notes as you listen and really digging into this music with focus is a great experience. If you have the vinyl bug, this is a perfect experience. Certainly this is music that rewards your pleasurable concentration.
Photo credit: Randall Gee Courtesy of Reckoning PR