Thelonious Monk's quartet with John Coltrane was one of the greatest groups in the history of jazz, but most of us have only been able to take other people's word for it. The group's reputation rests mostly on its live performances at the Five Spot, of which only an amateur recording of poor quality exists, and the musicians only entered the studio once to record a handful of tracks. Thus those who listen avidly to both Monk and Trane but missed their brief time working together could only really speculate about how great this band really was.
That is, until now. Larry Applebaum, a jazz specialist for the Library of Congress, came upon this recording by accident while digitally transferring the Library's catalog. The music, which came from a Voice of America broadcast from Carnegie Hall, was improperly labeled and gave little indication of what it was: a definitive concert by two jazz giants with excellent sound.
Simply put, this is an instant classic: 51 minutes of Monk and Coltrane playing together, at home in each other's company after having played together for four months. Thus we don't have the tentativeness from Coltrane that dogged earlier recordings, when he was still figuring out a way to navigate the nooks and crannies of Monk's melodies.
The Carnegie Hall concert shows a Coltrane who now solos boldly, able to apply his sheets of sound approach to blanket Monk's jagged accompaniment. Even the most obtuse of Monk's tunes, like "Epistophy, give him little trouble, and it's easy to hear why the pianist had such an pivotal role in Coltrane's development. Monk was a workout for anyone who had the opportunity to gig with him, but Coltrane used his time with him to hone his craft and start the melodic quest that would occupy him for the rest the year. Monk, of course, plays in his usual flat-fingered approach, delighted to have a soloist who could keep up. The level of playing is consistently high throughout as the quartet works through the kinds of Monk tunes that we all wanted to hear Coltrane tackle.
Monk and Coltrane have a marquee value that will inevitably make this a jazz disc for people who don't own much jazz (after all, only the zealots get excited about stuff like Passing Ships). But for most of us, this is about as close to a Holy Grail as we're going to get. It's hard to believe that anyone interested in jazz won't be checking this one out. An early candidate for disc of the year.
Personnel: Thelonious Monk: piano; John Coltrane: tenor saxophone; Ahmed Abdul-Malik: bass;
Shadow Wilson: drums.