Jazz happens in the moment. Its crucial ingredient, in most cases, is improvisation. No other western music is so thoroughly grounded in spontaneity.
Jazz, they say, is “the sound of surprise” and so some have argued that recording jazz musicians in the studio and locking their solos into permanent grooves just isn’t right. If you haven’t been to a concert or club, seeing and feeling the act of improvisation in the moment, you haven’t really heard jazz.
Most of us, still, are deeply appreciative of jazz recordings. But for the magic of the 78, the LP, and the CD, I’d have never heard the rip of Armstrong’s cornet, the flurry of Bird’s alto sax, or the skittering invention of Monk’s piano. In particular, recordings of live performances can capture the special sense of how a jazz band breathes together in action. They can do a decent job of putting you in the moment.
And now comes a series of live recordings long kept in a vault somewhere, recordings of jazz masters made under strong conditions during what turns to have been a golden age for the music. Live at the 1964 Monterey Jazz Festival captures the genius pianist and composer Thelonious Monk during a time when the world was finally digging him and Monk was basking in the attention.
Seven months before this concert at the legendary Monterey festival, Monk had appeared on the cover of Time magazine. (To mull what a time this was for jazz, consider the likelihood that a real jazz musician might appear on Time‘s cover any time in the coming decades. You may begin weeping now.) His quartet, with Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, Ben Riley on drums and (sitting in on this day) Steve Swallow on bass, was stable and established. Indeed, Monk was playing all over the world by 1964, with big band arrangements of his music supplementing the small group fairly often, including on this autumn day.
The repertoire for this concert is all you could want: “Blue Monk”, “Evidence”, “Bright Mississippi”, “Rhythm-a-ning”, and then with the five additional horns “Think of One” and “Straight, No Chaser”. It is a program of straight-ahead bebop of the Monkian variety. Though the rhythm section drives forward at mid-to-quick tempo on every track, it trots with typically Monkish panache and style. It stutters and sashays, skips and skitters, all without actually losing its sense of drive. All of this goes without saying. Since this music was recorded, Thelonious Monk has been universally acclaimed as one of the great figures of American music. We have consensus. This is Monk. This music is, almost by definition, great.
Still, with this concert being released for the very first time 43 years after the fact, the question arises. Is this a particular find, a lost gem?
Honestly, as good as it is, this music is no revelation. It is just a perfectly terrific Monk performance from this period. While there is some novelty value in hearing the group with substitute bassist Swallow, the character of the music is identical to the fine albums made around this time on Columbia Records. Rouse plays with a terse drive, pushing out his clipped blues phrases with characteristic vinegar tone. Riley achieves his usual impossible task of capturing Monk’s oddly drunk pulse without breaking the flow.
The pianist plays with indisputable command and wit. Whether in the ensemble sections or in his solos, Monk plays the whole band as easily as he plays his piano, wrangling all the music to his quirky impulses. Unlike his friend and contemporary Bud Powell, Monk did not throw out older styles as he adapted the piano to the new bop aesthetic. As a result, Monk echoes stride and swing playing as much as he shocks us with his angular newness. At Monterey, Monk seems perfectly free and playful.
For the last two tunes of the concert, the quartet is joined by five additional west coast horns, two reeds and three brasses. It’s the kind of thing that was happening to Monk at the time, and the added power sits well on top of the band. The players roll over the melodies easily, showing the extent to which Monk’s oddball sensibility had become mainstream by ’64.
So it was a terrific concert from the Thelonious Monk Quartet. It would have been great to have been there, and you can relive the experience now. But it was one of many from the time, a time when the Monk band was certainly consistently excellent. Forty years on, it’s nice to hear. It’s not going to shake up your view of Monk or jazz in 1964, but your opinion of both should have been pretty high to begin with.