Thelonious Monk: Criss-Cross

Thelonious Monk

For beginners, this is as good as any introduction to Monk’s music, with every quartet member at his best and playing with an assurance founded on having a contract with a major label. Columbia’s corpus of Monk recordings began with Monk on the roster with Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck, touring the world (so to speak) with a settled quartet. He was working on new compositions and new thoughts and interpretations, as is possible with permanent elements of jazz’s repertoire.

With Columbia, his career went through two transitions. The second of these was into a situation where commodity marketing strategy was allowed to take precedence over creative musical production values (now all the more evident since no longer under the shadow of bright lights and dollar signs).

The first was from the intensively creative musical direction Orrin Keepnews had forged as producer for his and Bill Grauer’s Riverside company, into what was (on Columbia’s part) nearer a documentation of occasions throughout Monk’s public performing life. Including one New York Town Hall concert with an enlarged group like the earlier one Riverside recorded and another which different parties taped from a Paris stage — and a solo piano set just reissued despite the Town Hall concert’s musical priority — this was a succession of quartet performances with solo piano features when tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse (and usually the bassist and drummer as well) took a break. Just like in the usual concert hall performances for which Monk was beginning to be engaged regularly.

Orrin Keepnews is producing these reissues, a series of intelligent CDs unhampered by the vinyl LP’s time restrictions — or any other external factors. This may be some compensation forty years after his company lost a star whose recording career with Columbia ground to a halt around the same time that Riverside and Monk’s earlier recording company, Prestige, also folded. Rather than, for instance, record the 1967 Paris nonet or organise other recording occasions that were not merely quartets or solo performances, Columbia proceeded with the product as ever, without Keepnews’s sort of contribution. This hadn’t been control, but a degree of initiative the retiring Monk lacked, at least in effect. Perhaps long delays between the emergence of his gifts and initial modest recognition — to say nothing of later, wider recognition — had restricted the scope of Monk’s external or worldly (rather than musical) ambition.

The main casualty of most of Monk’s time with Columbia is the limited interest of private live recordings by the quartet which are unearthed from time to time. Of real interest are examples (like one romping solo “Bye and Bye” on a TV film) of Monk doing interesting things Columbia had missed recording. This brings to mind the other casualty of complacency: records not made that might well have been made. Depressing.

There are already quartet items with Rouse on Riverside too, but by the time of this second batch of records documenting the trio, a peak of integration had been attained, telepathic or symbiotic music-making here devoted to an at times very frisky set of Monk compositions. A poignant solo version of “Don’t Blame Me” expresses Monk’s talent and fondness for simplicity, and a trio version of “Tea for Two” is especially interesting. Between its composition as part of Vincent Youmans’s No, No Nanette, the daft little tune with new glorious endowments had been an important part of the Harlem “stride” piano school’s repertoire due to its function as a kind of think tank and well of inspiration for jazz. Monk was another well and thinker, and here takes up not pure but improved Youmans, as best displayed by Willie the Lion Smith on a very obscure album for the Grand Award label. Storming away at the tune’s famous minimal chorus, Smith yells that he’s now going into the lift-shaft, and at top speed every phrase is in a higher key than the one which preceded it, before he takes it back down.

The result is instant harmonic sophistication, since the performance demands all the enrichments and articulations of orchestral swing. This is what Monk’s into in a fast lope where he needed John Ore’s bass (which opens the piece instantly quirky and alert) and Frankie Dunlop’s drums. The succession of key changes becomes the basis for a lot of harmonic criss-crossing. The initially published take was chosen presumably because the additional one added here (another two hitherto unissued titles are doubled here from archives) was even more wildly interesting, as well as longer. Blowing away the tune’s silliness is a big thing; so is a starch-free view of life which can get down to seriousness without any parody of solemnity.

The upbeat nature of all this music is declared very boldly in Monk’s own “Think of One”, whose complexities Rouse knows so well the performance doesn’t need to dwell on them. It’s all about laughing, but not because you don’t know any better. Monk’s deep love of his wife in “Crepuscule with Nellie” is like a photo of them laughing together. It’s powerfully affirmative. Monk can be heard talking at the end of that love-poem, and I can’t do better than to quote him: Yeah!

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