"The piano ain't got no wrong notes." – Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Sphere Monk passed away in 1982, and if he were still alive, he'd be turning 100 this year. Despite – or perhaps because of – his reclusive, unconventional nature and penchant for going against the grain throughout his artistic career, Monk is regarded as one of the true giants of jazz music. His influence reaches far and wide. To put it in perspective, Monk's compositions are the second-most recorded in jazz after Duke Ellington, and while Ellington composed more than a thousand pieces of music, Monk wrote about 70.
In the 35 years since Monk's passing – not to mention the roughly 45 years since he last toured or recorded – jazz enthusiasts and record companies have been having a field day reissuing classic Monk recordings and unearthing long-forgotten sessions. Craft Recordings – the folks who brought us the stunning 25th-anniversary reissue of R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People last month – assembled a limited-edition box set that includes all five of the 10-inch vinyl LPs the legendary pianist recorded for Prestige Records from 1952 to 1954. Jacket design and LP labels have all been faithfully reproduced, while the original recordings have been carefully restored and remastered. A new booklet contains a slew of liner notes courtesy of Monk biographer Robin D. G. Kelley.
Although Monk had been recording as early as 1944 (as a member of the Coleman Hawkins Quartet) and recorded intermittently for Blue Note Records from 1947 to 1952, by the time he secured a contract with Prestige, he was living in dark times. A run-in with the law resulted in the revoking of Monk's cabaret card, which resulted in a lack of any potential income-generating gigs in New York City. But the Prestige recordings offered him the opportunity to reach wider critical and commercial acceptance. His first release for the label – simply titled Thelonious - was produced by Ira Gitler and featured Monk accompanied by bassist Gary Mapp and drummers Art Blakey (in the first session) and Max Roach (in the second session).
This first album, recorded in October and December 1952, filters Monk's unique, dissonant style through the trio format with fascinating results. Not only is the sound quality impressive for a 65-year-old recording, the confidence at which Monk and his band perform these songs is stunning. Its modernity and utter originality make it sound profoundly fresh, even in the current musical climate. Future Monk standards like "Monk's Dream" and "Trinkle, Trinkle" manage to combine memorable melodies with unique note clusters. That conflation of hummable tunes with jarring note choices helped propel Monk into legend status, and the way the trio "clicks" during these crucial sessions helps Monk successfully interpret the music in his head. Monk's unusual behavior is also audible as he can clearly be heard - just barely – aping the piano notes with his voice (not unlike similar legends like Glenn Gould and Keith Jarrett). It's also interesting to hear "Bemsha Swing" (later recorded on his classic 1956 album Brilliant Corners with a larger band) in a more intimate format.
Thelonious Monk Quintet Blows for LP is the second LP in the Prestige series, and as its title indicates, Monk not only cleared the decks with a new bassist and drummer (Percy Heath and Willie Jones, respectively), he also added two horn players to the mix: Julius Watkins on French horn and the incomparable Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone. The songs still contain the fractured beauty of typical Monk compositions, but the horns add a dimension that allows the combo to present a more layered sound. Monk, Watkins, and – in particular – Rollins all stretch out with extended solos, especially on the 10-and-a-half-minute "Friday the Thirteenth". You also hear an early, swinging version of the future standard "Think Of One", a track that would make more appearances in this box set (as well as the 1954 album Monk).
The third LP in the Prestige 10-inch set, Thelonious Monk Quintet (Prestige didn't seem interested in spending a lot of time on album titles, apparently), was recorded in 1954 and features a lot more personnel shifts: Blakey is back behind the drum kit, Frank Foster replaces Rollins on tenor sax, Curly Russell plays bass, and Ray Copeland introduces the trumpet to the Monk Prestige sound. Here the arrangements are even fuller, as the trumpet/sax soloing between Copeland and Foster – best represented on the Monk original "We See" - create a playful back-and-forth. But Monk himself creates a sumptuous musical atmosphere when leading the quintet through an idiosyncratic-yet-gorgeous take on the standard "When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," his busy, playful fingers dancing around the keyboard. The radical sounds Monk was creating during this time cannot be overstated – up to this point, standards never managed to convey a sound that was so groundbreaking yet so emotionally eloquent.
Thelonious Monk Plays is the fourth LP, and it's back to the trio format, with Heath and Blakey on bass and drums. As usual, it's mostly original material with an oddball standard thrown in for good measure. This time around Monk covers "Just a Gigolo," and it's arranged as a solo piano piece, with the familiar melody fractured by the usual dissonance Monk is known for, putting a unique spin on a song best known for versions by Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Art Tatum, among many others. On this recording, in addition to other tracks like the now-famous Monk original "Blue Monk" – featuring an excellent Blakey drum solo - Thelonious manages to slide into the recordings either by himself or with his band with equal ease, and it speaks volumes not only for Monk's playing and arranging styles but also for the caliber of musicians that he chose to work with throughout these fruitful years.
The final LP in the set is Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk, a session that had curious beginnings: originally conceived as a Sonny Rollins album with bassist Tommy Potter, drummer Art Taylor and pianist Elmo Hope as sidemen, the situation quickly changed when Hope was arrested on drug charges and Monk was brought in to take his place. As a result, the three songs are all standards, and while the absence of Monk's original compositions is missed, it's refreshing to hear Rollins back in the fold, particularly when given the opportunity to provide unfettered soloing on tracks like the extended version of "More Than You Know." In fact, the entire band dynamic seems to be tipping toward the even more revolutionary sounds of future Monk albums like Brilliant Corners, with stunning musicianship combining with the kind of modern, unpredictable song structure for which Monk would be known.
The entire five-LP set is one delightful treat after another, not just because you're hearing an extremely innovative musician and composer like Thelonious Monk at one of his greatest creative peaks, but because this particular era – like so much of Monk's output – has never quite been replicated by anyone since. Here's hoping there's much more of his music in store for future box sets.