Thelonious Monk: Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960

A rediscovered Thelonious Monk session sheds light on the composer's skill as a bandleader as well as his unassuming professionalism.
Thelonious Monk
Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960

The adjective used by Sam and Saga Records to describe film director Roger Davim’s 1960 stab at the Dangerous Liasions story is “famed”. But if Les Liaisons Dangereuses was such a famed movie, how come its soundtrack slipped through the cracks of time, especially when it was recorded by one of the musical giants of the 20th century? Sometime between 1959 and 1960, jazz great Thelonious Monk assembled a short-lived by highly capable quintet to record a soundtrack for the French film, mostly assembled from previously recorded Monk originals.

This barrier between American jazz and French Cinema had been cracked before, thanks to recordings like Miles Davis’s pleasant but unremarkable work for Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. But for some reason, the tapes for the Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 sessions had to go and take a 50-plus-year nap before being recently rediscovered. It’s not likely that we’ll ever learn of a decent reason for why this kind of stuff goes missing.

This quintet features Charlie Rouse and French reedman Barney Wilen doubling up on tenor saxophones, Sam Jones on bass, and Art Taylor on drums. The Monk originals found on this session, including “Rhythm-a-Ning”, “Crepuscule with Nellie”, and “Well You Needn’t”, are all performed in a mostly mellow setting that doesn’t divorce them too far from other studio renditions. “Pannonica” exists in three iterations, two as solo piano and one featuring four members of the quintet. “Six in One” didn’t even have a name when Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 went to press, then credited as a solo piano improvisation. The lone cover is the short take of the gospel-tinged “By and By (We’ll Understand It Better By and By)”, closing out the soundtrack. The one Monk original that gets a makeover is “Light Blue”. Under Monk’s instructions to Taylor, this bost-bop favorite’s tempo is reduced to a stifling walking speed by way of a most ungroovy drumbeat. How do we know that this was Monk’s doing? It’s all on the bonus CD.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 comes with a bonus CD that almost matches the first one in length. Here we get alternate and/or unedited takes of what appeared on the original vinyl (you had to keep an eye on those running times back then!). “Pannonica” and “Well You Needn’t” are stretched to more comfortable lengths and the last track is reserved for a fly-on-the-wall account of Art Taylor receiving instruction on how to provide the backbone for “Light Blue”. And boy, does he have difficulty — and it’s not hard to hear why. Over and over again, Thelonious Monk keeps trying to tell Taylor what he wants, and it is seemingly simple; one hit on a low tom or kick followed by two hits on the snare. But when Monk’s main figure enters the picture, it derails everything. I tried to follow the pulse myself (the track is, after all, over 14 minutes), and I could have sworn that Monk was entering the music on a different beat each time. The “flow” of this newly-discovered “Light Blue” is so counter-intuitive that I’m surprised that they didn’t just throw their hands in the air and revert back to the old way of doing it. Instead, Monk persists, talking about the “ands” of the beats, stomping his foot, sounding out the beats, and following up his instructions with “you dig?” It’s not hard to develop a renewed sense of appreciation for the amount of work that went into just two minutes and 47 seconds of music, though there is a lengthier complete take of “Light Blue” on the bonus disc.

Producers Francois Le Xuan, Frederic Thomas, and Zev Feldman were actually on the hunt for another lost musical artifact when they accidentally discovered this long-buried Thelonious Monk session, and they have treated it as the truly unique find that it is. The mastering job is perfect and no expense was spared in the packaging. It probably takes longer to read all of the liner notes than it does to listen to the entire package — approximately 83 minutes. There are also a hefty amount of “new” photographs of the sessions, promoting the CD sleeve to booklet size. All angles are covered through the alternate takes and the concluding “Making of” track.

The one drawback to Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 is that, with the exception of “Light Blue”, its déjà vu nature makes it difficult to distinguish it from Thelonious Monk’s landmark albums. But that would be having your cake and eating it, which we’ve all come to never expect. I’m sure when paired with avant-garde French cinema, Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 and its namesake film made for a fine match.

RATING 7 / 10