Sometimes I scare myself. Just when I start believing that I haven’t progressed in my jazz record amassing to the designation a ‘collector,’ a box set like The Complete Prestige Recordings comes along and I deem it a ‘must have.’ Let me explain, in our household essential recordings by jazz artists are acquired without guilt (“we don’t have the remastered copy of Kind Of Blue, of course we must get it). While others require either the convoluted logic such as “you never know when these small labels might go out of business,” or just out-and-out stealth. Thelonious Monk’s prestige work falls somewhere between ‘must have’ and just want.
Monk’s recording career falls into four stages: His Blue Note years (1947-1952), Prestige years (1952-1954), Riverside years (1955-1961), and Columbia years (1962-1968). Beside a few live dates for the very small Vogue, Black Lion, and DIW labels, these four labels cover his entire career. Funny, because Monk’s sound in 1968 wasn’t significantly different from his first recordings for Blue Note in 1947. That’s not a criticism, as much as it is a tribute to an artist whose concepts seemed fully formed from the start. Monk worked in semi-obscurity until being ‘discovered’ in the early 1960s, interestingly enough during his Major label residence with Columbia. What was considered weird in 1950 was later celebrated in 1964.
Assembled together for the first time, Monk’s entire Prestige recordings include dates which he led in trio and quintet, and as sideman for Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins. The Hawkins’ record from 1944 Bean And The Boys finds the 27 year-old Monk playing in his now distinct sound. His solo on “Flyin’ Hawk” is unmistakably Monk. Hawkins’ unlike other leaders of his day, recognized Monk’ genius.
From his two sessions with Sonny Rollins, seven songs were recorded, including a nearly eleven-minute version of “Friday The 13th.” One session suffers from the odd inclusion of Julius Watkins’ French horn and Willie Jones, a drummer in over his head. The other takes off, matching Monk with Rollins, bassist Tommy Potter, and drummer Arthur Taylor. The quartet eschews Monk’s music (it was Rollins’ date as leader) for standards. Just like Monk did throughout his career with songs such as “Just A Gigolo” and “Body And Soul,” he makes any song his own, applying Monk chords, spacing, and that familiar straight-finger attack.
His now famous session with Miles Davis is properly chronicled in the Peter Keepnews liner notes. Apparently Miles didn’t appreciate Monk playing behind his solos, and let Monk know it. Different versions of what happened in that Hackensack studio has become stuff of jazz legend. I’ll leave it to biographers and playwrites to sort out. The albums Bag’s Groove and Miles Davis And The Modern Jazz Giants came for this session. Besides Davis, Monk is paired with Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke, three quarter of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Tensions aside, the music recorded is mythological stuff. The ‘giants’ Jackson, Davis, and Monk display their differing voices in “Bags’ Groove,” the coolness of Miles, the angularity of Monk, and Jackson’s silky touch.
The real meat of this collection and any Monk collection for that matter is Monk in trio. Here he’s alternately paired with Art Blakey and Max Roach. Drummers seem to be a catalyst for Monk’s imagination. Maybe the beat of a timekeeper is the closest relative to Monk’s craft, and in such close proximity, this is a superb opportunity to compare the two drummers.
The other highlight from these sessions is Monk’s date with tenor saxophonist Frank Foster. The soon-to-be Count Basie Band star stands out as an interpreter of Monk, dare I say comparable to John Coltrane’s later (and mostly unrecorded) work with Monk. One can only wonder what would have occurred if Foster and not Charlie Rouse had become Monk’s tenor saxophonist.
Although these recording have been released in other form elsewhere, collected together for the first time, the complete recordings of this soon-to-be revered ‘High Priest of Bebop’ are part of the puzzle that was Thelonious Sphere Monk.
Track List Disc One:Flyin’ Hawk; Recollections; Drifting On A Reed; On The Bean; Bye-Ya; Monk’s Dream; Sweet And Lovely; Little Rootie Tootie; Bemsha Swing; Reflections; These Foolish Things; Trinkle, Tinkle; Think Of One; Let’s Call This; Think Of One (alt); Friday The 13th.