Not before time in more than one sense, for Keepnews, who writes lengthy background essays to each release in the series, is now 84 years oldbut still, seemingly, with his memories intact (though he admits to the odd lapse) and still, certainly, without any false modesty concerning his talents and achievements.
But at his venerable age, Keepnews has earned the right to blow his own trumpet, and these two Riverside releases from the series' launch batchthey're accompanied by trumpeter Kenny Dorham's Jazz Contrasts (Riverside, 1957), alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's Quintet's In San Francisco (Riverside, 1959), and tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson's Power To The People (Milestone, 1969)include some of the most enduring jazz of the mid-twentieth century.
Plays Duke Ellington
Like the other four discs in the collection's first batch, Plays Duke Ellington isn't one of the commonly acknowledged all-time-greats by the artist in questionmost people would agree that pianist Thelonious Monk's Riverside masterpieces are Brilliant Corners (1956), Thelonious Himself (1957) and Monk's Music (1957)but if not a hall-of-fame masterpiece, it's a masterful and hugely enjoyable album.
Plays Duke Ellington was Monk's first album for Riverside, conceived by Keepnews as a way of steering the idiosyncratic artist into the mainstream via a set of familiar jazz standards. Monk, of course, made some of his most singular and joyfully aberrant music with standards, in particular on Prestige (the label from which Keepnews acquired him for a bargain $150 cash-in-hand) with deconstructions of tunes like "These Foolish Things," "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and "Just A Gigolo." But here he keeps a relatively straight face on eight well known Ellington compositions.
Accompanied by the vibrant and swinging bass and drums team of Oscar Pettiford and Kenny Clarke (except on the solo piano reading of "Solitude"), Monk plays respectfully with the tunes, restricting his iconoclasm in the main to rhythmsa "Solitude" played with forceful gusto, a "Caravan" given an intoxicated Latin beatand the inner voicings rather than the grand architecture of the tunes.
There aren't any alternate takesKeepnews writes that there must have been some, though he can't find or remember anybut the sound (the original sessions were recorded by Van Gelder) is appropriately full-on and assertive.
Guitarist Wes Montgomery was already a star when he recorded this album, having made his name with four other Riverside sets including the aptly named Incredible Jazz Guitar (1960). With Full House, Keepnews writes that he was addressing Montgomery's perceived reluctance to let go in the recording studio as fully as he did on club dates. The album was recorded live at the Tsubo coffee bar in Berkeley, California, with a specially assembled, but well rehearsed, band.
And what a band. Pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb were trumpeter Miles Davis' then rhythm sectiontight and funky in equal partsand available on a Monday night off from the Davis sextet's engagement at San Francisco's Black Hawk. Tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin was another fortuitously available and inspired choicea booting, visceral soloist capable, if anyone was, of loosening Montgomery's stays.
In his new liner essay, Keepnews writes that the band rehearsed at Tsubo's on a few afternoons prior to the recording, and by the time of the gigexcellently captured by local live-recording maestro Wally Heiderreveal themselves as a rock solid comfort zone for Montgomery to be spurred on by and stretch out in. Griffin and Cobb in particular encourage the guitarist to get in touch with his raw, blues-drenched sideGriffin with steaming solos of his own and Cobb with unfailingly magisterial swing. Only Kelly, mixed a tad low to my ears, sounds at less than full strength.
There are five alternate takesincluding two of "Born To Be Blue," both with the less than entirely pulled-together endings which led Keepnews to leave the tune off the original albumthough all have been previously released.
Tracks and Personnel
Plays Duke Ellington
Tracks: It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing); Sophisticated Lady; I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good); Black And Tan Fantasy; Mood Indigo; I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart; Solitude; Caravan.
Personnel: Thelonious Monk: piano; Oscar Pettiford: bass; Kenny Clarke: drums.
Tracks: Full House; I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face; Blue 'n' Boogie; Cariba; Come Rain Or Come Shine; S.O.S. Alternate takes: Cariba; Come Rain Or Come Shine; S.O.S.; Born To Be Blue; Born To Be Blue.
Personnel: Wes Montgomery: guitar; Johnny Griffin: tenor saxophone; Wynton Kelly: piano; Paul Chambers: bass; Jimmy Cobb: drums.
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