Thelonious Monk Brilliant Corners

Thelonious Monk’s Seminal ‘Brilliant Corners’ Gets Reissue Treatment It Deserves

As the latest entry in a carefully curated audiophile series, jazz icon Thelonious Monk’s 1957 masterpiece Brilliant Corners sounds better than ever.

Brilliant Corners (Small Batch, One-Step Pressing Reissue)
Thelonious Monk
Craft Recordings
8 September 2023

Thelonious Monk‘s status as a legend and a unique, uncompromising figure in jazz music is not only due to his unconventional style of approaching the piano – his compositions, though relatively low in numbers have been analyzed, covered, and adored for decades. For comparison, consider that Monk’s jazz songs are the second-most recorded in history after Duke Ellington. However, while Ellington composed more than a thousand pieces, the North Carolina-born, New York-based Monk wrote only about 70. Brilliant Corners, the album Monk released in April 1957, depends heavily on original material and is one of many reasons why it’s regularly considered a classic and one of the most essential albums in jazz history.

Craft Recordings, the reissue label whose roster includes everyone from R.E.M. to John Coltrane to Otis Redding to Nine Inch Nails, have wisely chosen to reissue Brilliant Corners on vinyl as part of their exclusive “Small Batch” series. This series uses original master tapes for all-analog mastering, employing a custom tube pre-amp and analog mixing console. Furthermore, a one-step lacquer process (instead of the standard three steps) allows for less generational loss and a clearer, more detailed, and more accurate sound reproduction. In short, if you’re a fan of Brilliant Corners (and really, no self-respecting jazz fan should be without it), this is money well spent.

Monk’s third album for the Riverside label (after stints with Blue Note and Prestige), Brilliant Corners, was produced by Riverside co-founder Orrin Keepnews and recorded over three separate sessions in late 1956 at Reeves Sound Studio in Manhattan after Riverside ended its association with Rudy Van Gelder’s famed studio in Hackensack, New Jersey. It was under these conditions that Monk – whose two previous Riverside albums consisted mostly of standards – was given the go-ahead to show off more of his compositions. It proved to be a highly successful gambit.  

But it’s not just the songs themselves that shine on Brilliant Corners. Most of the sessions consist of Max Roach (percussion), Sonny Rollins (tenor saxophone), Oscar Pettiford (bass), and Ernie Henry (alto saxophone) – a ferocious quartet with seemingly telekinetic abilities to accurately interpret not only Monk’s angular melodies but the breakneck shifts in tempo that tend to dot the compositions. Take the title track, which opens the record. While edited together from a number of takes during the second of the album’s three recording dates, the song’s ternary form – an eight-bar A section, followed by a seven-bar B section, and a modified seven-bar A section, also featuring complex rhythms and a bouncing, double-time theme – certainly comes off as idiosyncratic. But the fact that the quartet backing Monk remained bafflingly consistent and coherent through all the different sections speaks to their unique skill set and highly professional performance. Rollins and Roach take exhilarating solos in the piece to counter the unusual, fussy arrangements.

Brilliant Corners’ first session yielded the second and third songs, “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are” and “Pannonica”, and round out the first side. The former is an extended blues, the album’s longest track, with multiple solos, including some spirited piano work from Monk, wrapping his melodic yet dissonant notes around the song’s lazy, swinging tempo. The latter track is even more textured, as Monk adds a celeste to the ensemble (after eyeing one in the studio and deciding to include it in the song at the last minute). The instrument’s glinting, mystical tones give the track an air of exoticism. Both of these songs are a tribute to Monk’s close friend Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter, a member of the Rothschild family and a patroness of several New York City jazz musicians (“Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are” is a reference to the Bolivar Hotel on Central Park West, Nica’s Manhattan residence).

“I Surrender, Dear” is not only the one track on Brilliant Corners not written by Monk – it was composed by Harry Barris in 1931 – it’s also the only one where Monk plays solo. The song, also popularized by Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, and Nat “King” Cole, is one of many examples of Monk combining his unorthodox playing style with delicacy and grace. As evidenced in the rest of the album, Monk excelled as a bandleader and ensemble performer, but hearing him unaccompanied on piano is to witness the eloquent joy of Monk unfiltered.

Personality clashes during the previous sessions resulted in Monk replacing Henry and Pettiford with trumpeter Clark Terry and bassist Paul Chambers for the third and final session, which yielded “Bemsha Swing”. This composition, co-written by Monk and Denzil Best, is bolstered by the slightly adjusted personnel and Roach playing drums and timpani. This unusual addition to the drummer’s arsenal, suggested, not unlike the celeste, at the last minute, adds an unexpected depth to the piece. The swing of the number is inevitable, and the trumpet replacing the alto saxophone (as well as the addition of a percussion instrument more suited to the pomposity of a symphony) gives “Bemsha Swing” plenty of gravitas to close Brilliant Corners with a suitable mix of melody and madness.

Monk continued to record and tour long after the celebrated release of Brilliant Corners, although he slowed down considerably and stopped entirely for the last few years of his life before dying of a stroke in 1982. However, few would argue that this 1957 release was his artistic peak. The compositions are unforgettable, his playing was astonishing, and his abilities as a bandleader were unparalleled. Many prizes have been bestowed on this masterpiece over the years. In 2003, it was added by the Library of Congress to the National Recording Registry, and in 1999, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Jazz historian Ashley Kahn, who wrote the extended liner notes to this new vinyl reissue, opined that “what makes (it) so persuasively, enduringly brilliant is how this one recording captured all aspects of his genius in his prime”. AllMusic’s Lindsay Planer wrote that it “may well be considered the alpha and omega of post-World War II American jazz”.

Craft Recordings’ reissue certainly gives Brilliant Corners the respect it deserves, with a sumptuously packaged reissue and stunning sonic fidelity. If you’ve been waiting for the right time to add this to your collection, the wait is over.

RATING 10 / 10