By the time Thelonious Monk appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1964, anointed as the cool weird slightly scary jazzbo that it was okay for middle America to like, most of his songs were written, most of his innovations were behind him. In fact, his entire tenure at Columbia Records is often written off by critics and hipsters, who figure that Monk jumped the shark when he left Riverside and that this period was all downhill.
This view is almost entirely predicated on the idea that Monk was a composer first, a pianist second, and a bandleader third — and it’s true that his compositions dropped off in number dramatically during the last 10 years of his life, and that his Columbia recordings revisited a lot of previously recorded material. Critics and hipsters see this period as a time when he was just basking in the reflected glory of his earlier triumphs, playing the eccentric for a living, coasting. I mean, how many times can a guy record a solo piano version of “Just a Gigolo” without the accusation sticking?
But Monk didn’t distinguish between his three roles, because he never thought of his career like a critic or a hipster. Columbia has just reissued three of his albums from this time period with loads of extra material on each, and every single disc shows that this was an incredibly fruitful time for him. Even though his composing phase was winding down, the strides he made as a pianist and as the leader of his two main working quartets were in some ways just as important.
His first recording for Columbia, Monk’s Dream, was released in February 1963, and remains his best-selling studio album. There is only one new composition, and it got him in trouble; “Bright Mississippi” has some rather obvious chordal similarities to “Sweet Georgia Brown”, whose writers threatened to sue him over it all. Other than that, there are four songs that Monk had already written — some more than 10 years previously — and three remakes of classic showtunes, all of which he had recorded before.
But these are just statistics and facts, which can’t stand up to the actual experience of listening to the record. And when you do that, you hear how much work Monk had put into leading his band. The LP starts with the title song, and the group is incredibly precise: Frankie Dunlop’s drumming and John Ore’s bass work sound like they’re being done by the same person here, and Charlie Rouse takes off from the chorus into a stirring and confident solo that shows just how much he loves the song. He wasn’t the smoothest sax player of all time, nor was he the most concerned with technical perfection, but his work with Monk was joyful and adventurous and complimented the pianist’s style for an amazing 12-year run. Monk’s enthusiastic comping behind him here, and on “Blues Five Spot”, would have thrown off any other soloist — but Rouse had been playing with him since 1958, and they were working on an extrasensory level at this point.
Monk might have never been as good a piano player as he was during this period. For proof, all you need is his reinvention of “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are” (now just called, boringly, “Blue Bolivar Blues”) as a juke-joint boogie-woogie, with trills and frippery all over from the very beginning. When Monk follows Rouse’s preacher-man solo with his own, he turns it into a math lesson, a pointillist exercise that is also packed with fun and some impossible slalom runs through the complicated chord structure. One 41-second passage consists entirely of single-note triplets scooting all over the place before resolving themselves in a messy chord. It’s just about the most fun one could ever have in jazz; and that’s all before he does a kind of parody of his own be-bop key-stabbings at the 6:30 mark.
And his solo pieces are reflective marvels as well. I’ve heard him do “Just a Gigolo” before, mostly as a stride piece with a Dixieland flavor — but here treats it tenderly, reverently, like a lounge pianist with a gig at Carnegie Hall. And his “Body and Soul” here is full of majesty and inevitability, rolling on like a river for four and a half incredible minutes. You can hear how he’s improved it by comparing the previously unissued earlier take, which is beautiful but unfocused; anyone else would have been perfectly happy with this, but Monk knew he hadn’t nailed it yet, and managed to find a center for it on the take that ended up on the original album.
At Newport 1963 & 1965 is a different story altogether. The 1963 show was previously released as half of Miles and Monk at Newport, and substitutes Butch Warren on bass instead of Ore; this set is mostly famous for its guest star on two numbers, the Dixieland clarinetist Pee Wee Russell. While this was truly an interesting collaboration, it is important not to overlook the three lengthy songs that don’t feature Russell at all. “Criss Cross” is a disciplined romp through one of Monk’s most intricate compositions, and showcases Rouse, who sounds just as tight live as he does in the studio. As a matter of fact, I believe that Rouse’s work here and on the gentle ballad “Light Blue” should nominate him as one of the finest live soloists in jazz history . . . but his refusal to play “out” or to bend Monk’s material to his own ends will unfortunately mean that he will continue to be disrespected as a second banana. This is unfair, but that’s the way it goes.
Russell was undergoing a career renaissance when he stepped onstage with Monk’s group in 1963; Columbia was trying to position him as the cool old dude who was still down with today’s music, and it didn’t quite work. Indeed, he was unfamiliar with “Nutty” and “Blue Monk”, hadn’t rehearsed with the group, and said later that he didn’t like “that kind of music”. And it is pretty much critic/hipster holy writ that his solo on “Nutty” falls apart just as soon as Monk stops feeding him chords. But this is clearly bullshit — Russell’s work on “Nutty” is adventurous and wild, and deserves some rehabilitation now that it’s been reissued. Monk does stop with the heavy support halfway through, but Russell responds with some long low tones that rub all around the place in a fascinating way. He really stretches himself in this section, and pulls off a slow transition to the kind of ragtimey solo that everyone expected him to do in the first place, which is where he ends up. He might not have liked what he was doing, but his solo is, in its own way, just as gutsy avant-garde as anything Coltrane ever pulled off. In comparison, his work on “Blue Monk” sounds more perfect but is ultimately a little boring.
The second disc is the real find here, a previously unissued 38-minute set from July 4, 1965. This band features Larry Gales on bass and Ben Riley on drums, one of Monk’s best bands, and it whips through some of his wildest songs: “Off Minor”, that mysterious descending piece, gets 13 glorious minutes, with ample solo room for everyone involved; the relatively rare “Hackensack” pops up in its sprightly way and comes off extremely well, with one of Gales’ patented walking-bass-with-extra-stuff solos and some cool trade-fours interplay between him and Riley. This quartet was a well-oiled machine (as can be heard on the Live at the It Club set), and this is a nice example of how great they could be.
This is also the same band that plays on the 1965 album Monk., and we’re right back to the same formula as Monk’s Dream. Again, there is only one new tune, “Teo”, named for superproducer Teo Macero, and a really hilarious and wonderful adaptation of “This Old Man” called “Children’s Song (That Old Man)”, which is in itself enough justification to own this album. The rest is stuff we’ve heard before: another version of the Gershwin’s “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)”, which Monk had already released several times in many formats; an epic “April in Paris” and a longer “Just You, Just Me”; a seven-minute solo on the ancient song “I Love You (Sweetheart of All My Dreams)”.
But here it’s the band that makes it all worthwhile. Sure, Monk’s playing is stellar — it usually was. But it’s a treat to hear Gales and Riley coming together as new bandmates, and Rouse’s professionalism and love for his mentor really shines through. The album version of “Pannonica” is sweet and slow and powerful, but the unused take is just as sharp, if maybe a little tentative. The new song, “Teo”, is on point, but that’s not a surprise, as it had already joined the band’s repertoire by the time it was recorded; to hear the give-and-go between Rouse and Monk is to understand what jazz music is capable of, and Monk’s own solo gets barrelhouse and — dare I say? — funky before turning into a semi-support piece for Gales’ suddenly prominent bassline. And I’m very surprised that “Children’s Song” isn’t better-known as a Monk piece, on arrangement alone. Everyone approaches the piece as if he is trying to explain his music to a child, but, y’know, in a good way.
All in all, these reissues should serve to keep this important time in Monk’s career right there in front of the listener. They’re all important (with the first two mentioned slightly more important than the third), because they show Thelonious Monk in a new light: a bandleader extraordinaire.