Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane: At Carnegie Hall (2005)
Let's be clear from the start: this discovery of a new Monk/Coltrane live concert completely puts to shame the over-hyped Five Spot CD from years ago. Not only is the sound as sterling and clear as the sound on the Five Spot date was excretory, but the performances of the stars are light years beyond that muddy recording.
There is a sense that both Monk and Coltrane knew they were going to make history in 1957 at Carnegie Hall, and it's palpable from the opening notes of "Monk's Mood. Monk sounds grandly baroque in summoning grandly cascading arpeggios from his piano (which sounds infinitely better than the junk pianos he was often saddled with), while Coltrane sounds immensely assured.
To really savor Coltrane's performances, begin by listening to the studio session with Monk currently listed in the Fantasy catalog (Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane). Then listen to the Five Spot recording, and then this new discovery.
During the studio date, Coltrane sounds remarkably reserved, perhaps too star-struck still, as he was on his session with Duke Ellington, to do very much but hang on for the ride. The Five Spot recording has Coltrane sounding looser, particularly on "In Walked Bud, but the recording sounds like it was recorded at the wrong end of a mine shaft, and much of what Coltrane played has to be imagined. Coltrane at Carnegie Hall with Monk is a man certain of his own voice while not afraid of showing his roots, clear-thinking, wonderfully focused, in tune with Monk's logic, simpatico with the rhythm section. A case could be built that this is the finest Coltrane recording before the historic Atlantic and Impulse sessions.
High points among Coltrane's solos abound, but my favorites are on "Nutty, with some wild cross-conversations between Coltrane and Monk going on, and "Sweet and Lovely, which Coltrane gooses into a galloping romp, clearly revealing his roots in early Dexter Gordon. The only dull patch for me is his lackluster accompaniment to "Crepuscule With Nellie, which was never about Coltrane anymore than Nellie was. It was Monk's showcase, regardless of who accompanied him.
On to Monk. After the grand opening gestures, he continues with buoyant, hyper-kinetic interpretations of "Evidence, "Epistrophy" (two versions, the complete one perhaps the better of the two for Monk, the incomplete one more of a Coltrane showpiece), and "Blue Monk. Very familiar fare, but toyed with harmonically and rhythmically as only Monk could do on a good night, and this was. Drummer Shadow Wilson was no Art Blakey, whom I always thought of as Monk's most apt drummer, but he respectably kept the band churning, along with rock-steady bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik.
The only flaw, and a minor one at that, is the heavy set of liner notes by five different hands. Only Lewis Porter really says something that deepens appreciation of this lovely recording. Amiri Baraka and Stanley Crouch pass beyond self-parody. I suggest that their future liner notes be published as e-books, though even that format might not accommodate their stadium-sized egos.
This is, though Woody Allen hated the phrase, "jazz heaven.
Track Listing: Monk's Mood; Evidence; Crepuscule With Nellie; Nutty; Epistrophy; Bye-Ya; Sweet & Lovely; Blue Monk; Epistrophy (incomplete).
Personnel: Thelonious Monk: piano; John Coltrane: tenor saxophone; Ahmed Abdul-Malik: bass; Shadow Wilson: drums.