Thelonious Monk: Underground

Thelonious Monk

Archaeology has become a trendy metaphor for, all too often, approaching a subject-matter with a perspective would-be interpreters of ancient artefacts have had forced on them. Not necessarily knowing enough about the thing dug up, what’s broken off, what eroded (details, marks where bits broke off) they have to find the right questions to ask. They have to find the right answers without knowing whether they’re asking the right questions.

And now we have the right questions to ask about the last Thelonious Monk Quartet set, since the reality archaeologists have to hope hasn’t been wholly lost has come into the hands of Orrin Keepnews. The answer to the question — for the most part summing up the excellent notes to this CD — is that the product called Monk by Columbia’s sales mob thirty or so years back required in their view processing, packaging and additives. The additives went into the processing, the most ludicrous sleeve photograph. Monk was “known to be funny”, so why not sit him at a piano with a shoulder-slung machine-gun interfering minimally with his arms, in a Maquisard hideout, grenades on the table, and a guy in a Nazi uniform roped to a chair in the corner.

The most toxic additive was the sleeve fantasy, of a sort exposed on this CD issue but still extensively in use for sales purposes.

Aw, Hell, I can’t type that crap about “Capitaine Monk” having a stuffed Gestapo officer in his music room and only one pet, a cow called Jellyroll. Whoever wrote that was either cynical or deserved to be put not up against a wall, but behind thick ones. The little gink should have been chased back to nursery school, crying.

Where earlier critics have surmised personal friction as the cause of Charlie Rouse’s absence from some items on this CD, the new notes report him as having been unable to make one of the dates for plain family reasons. It began and it ended without him, and maybe because everything else had been set up anyway. Thus came into being an unusual and indeed valuable variety of contents on this CD. Why else was the date not cancelled? Why else was there this interesting sample of Monk in piano trio format, other than because it saved the big folks money? Well, in any event this CD has one merit that wasn’t planned by Columbia.

They didn’t stint on playing time, as I presume Prestige, for instance, were forced to. And they did record reasonably well-organised sessions in most respects. In this case, the organisation didn’t extend to programming playing schedules for the maybe 42 minutes to go on vinyl disc. Monk’s quartet perhaps didn’t get programmed in quite that way. Columbia did, however, realise that the track list had to have a certain look. And so they processed: they cut bits out to shorten some tracks so there would be a number similar to that found on other recordings by the same artist.

Here at last is all the music, which appreciative reviewers have not observed is among the least strongly Monkish of all Monk’s recordings. Or maybe a more delicate version of Monkness (not monkishness).

The opening “Thelonious” is characterised by a slurring of melodic lines, and Monk seems to have been waiting for Rouse to come in since he doesn’t do much with the theme. Then we get nearly 11 minutes of the quartet, with Rouse playing by anybody’s standards exceptionally gently on “Ugly Beauty”. He’s plaintive, hesitant, and since the balance is right, the prominence of Larry Gales’s bass (fittingly timed, duly expressive booms) and Monk’s piano emphasise how quietly Rouse is playing. Monk and Rouse play some broken lines together, and Monk sometimes slips to the fore accompanying Gales’s deep-toned bass. Rouse comes back feathery and Gales goes deeper in emotional terms during a second solo, with only the ever impeccable Ben Riley (whom God preserve) light and crucially shadowing (or illuminating?). Four men musing together.

Gales is powerhouse on the mid-tempo blues “Raise Four”, which starts Monk and proceeds to minimal blues of a sort Ellington was going in for, Gales dancing round the little stabbed phrases, sawing away with his bass bow before his fingers move to walk in the direction of the repeated six-note figure which serves as theme. “Boo Boo’s Birthday” and “Green Chimneys” are both dedications involving Monk’s little daughter. The theme’s like a parody and Rouse seems relieved or released when he can get out of the fixed figures and solo.

One could mistake this relaxed session for a tired one. The trio on “Easy Street” makes small demand on the attention, although “Green Chimneys” opens with Rouse plainly raring to go. It has a lively theme and tends to proceed as a kind of collective improvisation, the accompaniment riffing and feeding and getting answers when it asks for them, repetitions of the occasional rhetorical question, until there’s Rouse with bass and drums as on stage (when Monk would sometimes dance cum conduct with his body. His own solo is dancey, some of his phrases over Gales’s strong-jigging bass risky — and when Gales solos with Riley only marking occasional accents, there is the novelty of Monk’s essence re-expressed by the bass. To the devil with everybody else, this is just a concert performance and Riley proves that, though often abused, the drum solo can be interesting. The way in which the other three join in is glorious, and I would rather have done away with “Easy Street” than cut what was perhaps the studio valediction of that sometimes great quartet.

The novelty was to have used some of the money saved due to Rouse’s absence on getting the studio guest Jon Hendricks to sing on “In Walked Bud”, his own words and some scat, stirring Monk to excel as accompanist and spin some nice solo lines (perhaps Hendricks’s vocal encouragement and clapping were a real bonus). Monk has nice ideas accenting Gales’s solo, and there’s Riley on drums again and it’s plain just how much was lost when Columbia decided instead to record Monk performances than make something special after the model of Orrin Keepnews.

This is not to take anything away from Ben Riley as a drum soloist. I wonder how much went into the earlier takes of “Boo Boo’s Birthday”, since the issued one is identified as take eleven. Some of the subtlety of the issued “Ugly Beauty” is missing from the preceding take issued here, but like the second take of “Boo Boo’s Birthday”, it’s fresher. This CD hardly has much priority given the properly large quantity of Monk currently available. There’s one heck of a lot on Riverside and the whole Prestige output and a great deal on Blue Note to be heard before even thinking of this one.