The impact of the late pianist/composer Thelonious Monk on modern jazz is almost impossible to quantify. First emerging as part of the crew of New York musicians spearheading the bebop movement in the 1940s, including saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, he quickly differentiated himself with an idiosyncratic and seemingly unschooled approach. Coupled with his somewhat eccentric personal behaviour, his playing alienated those more steeped in conventioneven a development as recent as bebop having its own rigid definition.
While he recorded a series of significant albums for Blue Note and Prestige from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s, his refusal to travel and lack of a cabaret card in New York meant that he would have to wait for greater fame. And so 1957 was a watershed year. With his cabaret card reinstated and beginning a series of recordings on Riversidesome of the best of his careerMonk started a five-month run at the Five Spot with his quartet, featuring a 31 year-old John Coltrane. It signified the beginning of an increase in popularity that would peak in the 1960s when he would sign with Columbia and end up on the cover of Time magazine.
Meanwhile, the young saxophonist's star was also on the ascendance. He had been a member of Miles Davis' group since 1955, but Davis fired him because of consequences of his heroin addiction in early 1957. Kicking the habit cold turkey back home in Philadelphia, Coltrane returned to New York in the late spring of that year, ultimately joining Monk in July.
While Coltrane would go onto greater heights, developing at an almost exponential rate over the next decade, recordings of his time with Monk are scarce. 1957's Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane and Monk's Music are the only commercial releases that have been available until now. Consequently, it was definite cause for celebration to hear that fifty minutes of music, representing a November, 1957 Carnegie Hall concert, were discovered this year in the Library of Congress archives. The impeccably recorded performance captures Monk's quartetalso featuring bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and hard-swinging drummer Shadow Wilsonin a program of Monk compositions which are now iconic and have influenced subsequent generations of musicians to this day.
With Coltrane playing more conciselyand with a considerably warmer tonethan he would in later years, At Carnegie Hall is as important a document of his early development as it is of Monk's retrospectively inevitable leap to greater fame.
With today's constantly shifting landscape, it may be difficult to appreciate just how innovative Monk's quirky tunes were five decades ago. While his language was clearly based in bebop, his odd rhythmic twists and wryly humorous dissonances took his music to unexpected places. His jaggedly blocky approach was a clear precedent for more outer-reaching players like Cecil Taylor, but Monk himself always remained stylistically closer to the mainstream. At Carnegie Hall proves just how vital a root Monk was. The impact of his approach is still being felt nearly 25 years after his death.
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Personnel: Thelonious Monk: piano; John Coltrane: tenor saxophone; Ahmed Abdul-Malik: bass;
Shadow Wilson: drums.