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African Jazz

Four Monks From Columbia

By Published: October 1, 2003
However confusing the music of Thelonious Monk may have been during his later years, the documents of his fertile '60s period have been downright bewildering. Live and studio material has been scattered around on both original releases and various reissues, liner notes have come and gone, and concert material has either ended up completely lost or tucked away on rare Japanese bootlegs.

To commemorate various anniversaries—the pianist's 80th birthday, in 1997; the 20th year after his death, in 2002—reissue producer Orrin Keepnews has resurrected Monk's Columbia material in style. Among the particularly noteworthy discs in this expanding series is a previously unknown recording of a live quartet performance at Newport in 1965, an unexpected and rather spectacular find. (That particular set came out last year, doubled with Monk's 1963 festival performance.)

Now well along on the track of recovery, Columbia has simultaneously put out four new reissues of mid-'60s studio material. Solo Monk is exactly what it says; the rest feature quartets. Saxophonist Charlie Rouse, a particularly sympathetic partner for many years, shows up on all three. The early rhythm section on Criss Cross (bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop) moves up a notch with the substitution of Butch Warren and Ben Riley later on.

Each of these four discs is a different sort of celebration. The problem, of course, is which one to pick. Monk completists will chase after everything for the original and new documentation, as well as unreleased tracks and remastering. The rest will have to see what sounds interesting.

Before proceeding to the original reviews, it's important to point out that Columbia's promotional materials are downright ugly and uninformative. Based on promises contained therein, the final releases will retain original art and liner notes along with new essays and nifty packaging. No way for me to speak about that, so I'll just focus on the music here.

In this collection:

Criss-Cross (1963)
It's Monk's Time (1964)
Solo Monk (1965)
Underground (1968)

Thelonious Monk
CK 65357 (1963: CL 2038)

Monk's '60s recordings for Columbia follow on the heels of a heap of material released by Milestone and Riverside in the previous decade. Criss-Cross presents him in the same configuration found on Monk's Dream, a hard-swinging combo that gives off just enough energy to propel the music forward without sounding rough or edgy.

It launches with "Hackensack," a '50s composition Monk performed for many years. Charlie Rouse gets things up to speed with a relatively bright and well-connected solo, sailing over the changes in a light and frisky manner. Monk bounces around, hinting at the sort of odd timing that made him famous. Frankie Dunlop takes a tight, facile hand at the drums here and elsewhere, regularly decorating the beat in an understated way and foreshadowing melodic twists in an uncannily intuitive way. John Ore keeps pushing forward, assuming a totally unobtrusive role that usually consists of walking basslines.

The title track has a conversational melody that plays with call-and-response and heads toward resolution. It's not a terribly demanding piece, nevertheless still appealing in its own unassuming way. The slower moments scattered on the disc tend to sag a bit, as if they were included for perfunctory reasons, but that may just reflect my bias. Monk can do much more with time when things are moving along at at least a mid-tempo clip. The relatively downtempo "Pannonica" is an exception, quite soulful and enthusiastic. The three bonus tracks tacked on at the end account for 18 minutes, including a second, more relaxed version of "Tea for Two." (Ninth take! Monk was never known to cut corners on record.)

Criss Cross strikes a conscious balance between fast and slow, punch and lyricism. The bedrock foundation of its rhythm section would be replaced a year later on It's Monk Time, so this presents a unique opportunity to compare the players. There's certainly no shortage of connectivity here.

Thelonious Monk
It's Monk's Time
CK 63532 (1964: CL 2184)

If you have to pick a weak point among these four releases, It's Monk's Time would be it. That's only in a relative sense, of course, since the pianist did not really put out bad records. (The only recurrent problem elsewhere, not one of his making, was the occasional muddy sound quality. That factor is mitigated here by attentive remastering, but like the other reissues in this series there's still some compromise in the piano's tone and the presence of the bass. That's probably inevitable given the time and technology when these tracks were laid down.)

Half of the tunes on It's Monk's Time are standards; the rest are mostly relatively obscure compositions by Monk which have only appeared a handful of times elsewhere. The three bonus tracks include alternate takes of "Nice Work if You Can Get It" and "Shuffle Boil," as well as the oft-celebrated "Epistrophy" (with somewhere around 200 versions on record by various artists). Charlie Rouse handles the latter with an elegant, light touch and does not crowd anyone out. That seems appropriate given the stop-and-start nature of the tune and its dramatically off-kilter rhythms.

Ben Riley's appearance on drums marks a change toward a more bubbling, percolating sound. His accents, usually on the snare, add an understated extra layer of time that both reinforces and stretches the pulse of the other players. This comes through particularly dramatically on the bluesy "Stuffy Turkey" and a 12-plus minute voyage through "Brake's Sake."

A solo piano rendition of "Memories of You" never rushes, carrying along a heavy dose of melancholy without sagging. Monk's playing sounds rather traditional (in a relative sense), not straying far from regular rhythms and harmonies. For some reason his solo work (see below for more) tended toward a retro approach. Regardless, It's Monk's Time is significantly less progressive in general (and specifically in Monk and Rouse's playing) than the other three discs in this stack.

Thelonious Monk
Solo Monk
CK 63533 (1965: CL 2349)

What a rare opportunity to hear the cosmic meanderings of a genius savant. Left to his own devices, Monk tightens everything up a few notches and adopts a much more regular density. There's still a prominent sense of a child at play (fun is what Monk's all about in the end), but that youthful celebration comes within a more structured context. Few of these pieces stretch over four minutes, which means nothing ever grows stale or bloated.

The timeless Barris/Clifford standard "I Surrender, Dear" launches in a nearly gothic mode, pedaled and deliberate, but warms up and eventually fades away in a shimmer of light. "Sweet and Lovely" exemplifies the general sound of these tunes. The bass and comping do not cross too many lines or break a lot of rules (essentially keeping time in a mode that dates back to stride and even ragtime piano). The melody also stays trim and paced, but the few accidentals thrown in and the occasional pauses and spurts render it anything but predictable.

Solo Monk feels like a return to roots for Monk, and given the distorted prism of his vision it's an unusual translation. A sense of nostalgia pervades this mix of (mostly non-Monk) compositions. Whether that reflects the pianist's approach to filling space in the absence of other improvisers, or simply him taking the opportunity to go in this direction for whatever reason, is a moot point.

"Monk's Point" is an interesting combination of tradition and invention. While the melody follows odd and unpredictable contours, the accompaniment lies in the realm time-tested stride piano. But when theme and counterpoint join together during this two-minute ditty, the combination sounds fresh.

The impressive nine bonus tracks here add 31 minutes to the original long play version. They account for more than just alternate takes, comprising a nice addition. (Note for those already familiar with this material: there's nothing here that didn't appear on Monk Alone, a two-disc compilation of Monk's solo music released in 1998.)

One look at Monk in that biplane with white scarf floating away, and you know you're in for a trip.

Thelonious Monk
CK 63535 (1968: CS 9632)

Underground is the last recording Monk made with his '60s quartet, consisting in this case of Charlie Rouse (tenor saxophone), Larry Gales (bass), and Ben Riley (drums). It's significantly more dynamic and countoured than the group's earlier work. That probably reflects the quartet's collective maturity, which allows more risk-taking, more irregular use of space, and more exploration of melodies' full potential. The cover certainly takes a trip into outer space, that's for sure.

Even when Monk chases after themes that repeat bar upon bar (eg. the introduction to the blues oddball "Raise Four"), he tosses in enough accidental notes and odd intervals to keep you guessing. The tune is a full-bodied celebration of how to say more with less, Monk seemingly more at ease on the edge.

He's not alone by any stretch. Newcomer Larry Gales abandons a perfunctory (albeit more than competent) role as walking bass timekeeper on several occasions. His departure into rhythmic accents and counterpoint helps catalyze a general looseness in the proceedings. Rouse, still riding on the bright side, aims toward a soulful tone. The upbeat swinger "Green Chimneys" clocks in at over 13 minutes, which of course means there's more than ample solo space. Charlie Rouse rises to the occasion with direct, forward-looking phrases that speak more emotionally (or at least more openly so) than his work on other Monk records. Vocalist Jon Hendricks steps in on "In Walked Bud" with some fresh lyrics and an inspired improvisation.

For the adventurous, Underground is clearly the pick of the litter. It embodies that strange but effective unpredictability that Monk cultivated in everything he did, and in his brightest collaborators as well. It's soulful, clever, and (at times) quite twisted. Less progressive listeners would do well to check out Criss-Cross or Solo Monk instead.

Track and Personnel Listings


Tracks: 1. Hackensack (Monk) - 4:12; 2. Tea for Two (Caesar/Youmans) - 3:46; 3. Criss-Cross (Monk) - 4:41; 4. Eronel (Monk) - 4:30; 5. Rhythm-A-Ning (Monk) - 3:53; 6. Don't Blame Me [retake 1] (Fields/ McHugh) - 7:05; 7. Think of One (Monk) - 6:05; 8. Crepuscule With Nellie (Monk) - 2:46; 9. Pannonica [take 2] (Monk) - 6:45; 10. *Coming on the Hudson (Monk) - 7:31; 11. *Tea For Two [Take 9] (Caesar/Youmans) - 5:12; 12. *Eronel [take 3] (Monk) - 5:59.

Personnel: Thelonious Monk: piano; Charlie Rouse: tenor saxophone; John Ore:bass; Frankie Dunlop: drums.

It's Monk Time

Tracks: 1. Lulu's Back in Town (Dubin/Warren) - 9:55; 2. Memories of You (Blake/Razaf) - 6:06; 3. Stuffy Turkey (Monk) - 8:11; 4. Brake's Sake (Monk) - 12:25; 5. Nice Work If You Can Get It [take 3] (Gershwin/ Gershwin) - 4:15; 6. Shuffle Boil [retake] (Monk) - 7:07; 7. *Epistrophy [take 1] (Monk/Kenny Clarke) - 5:04; 8. Nice Work If You Can Get It [take 2] (George & Ira Gershwin) - 4:06; 9. *Shuffle Boil [take 5] (Monk) - 4:51.

Personnel: Thelonious Monk: piano; Charlie Rouse: tenor saxophone; Butch Warren: bass; Ben Riley: drums.

Solo Monk

Tracks: 1. Dinah [Take 2] (Akst/Lewis/Young) - 2:29; 2. I Surrender, Dear [Take 1] (Barris/Clifford) - 3:45; 3. Sweet and Lovely [Take 2] (Arnheim/LeMare/Tobias) - 3:01; 4. North of the Sunset [Take 1] (Monk) - 1:53; 5. Ruby, My Dear [Take 3] (Monk) - 5:40; 6. I'm Confessin' (That I Love You) [Take 2] (Daugherty/ Neiburg/Reynolds) - 2:37; 7. I Hadn't Anyone Till You [Take 4] (Noble) - 3:18; 8. Everything Happens to Me [Take 3] (Adair/Dennis) - 3:30; 9. Monk's Point [Take 1] (Monk) - 2:18; 10. I Should Care [Take 1] (Cahn/ Stordahl/Weston) - 1:57; 11. Ask Me Now [Take 2] (Monk) - 4:38; 12. These Foolish Things Remind Me Of You [Take 3] (Link/Marvell/Strachey) - 3:34; 13. *Introspection [Take 4] (Monk) - 2:12; 14. *Darn That Dream [Take 1] (DeLange/VanHeusen) - 3:39; 15. *Dinah [Take 1] (Akst/Lewis/Young) - 2:22; 16. *Sweet and Lovely [Take 1] (Arnheim/LeMare/Tobias) - 3:16; 17. *Ruby, My Dear [Take 1] (Monk) - 4:45; 18. *I'm Confessin' (That I Love You) [Take 1] (Daugherty/Neiburg/Reynolds) - 2:41; 19. *I Hadn't Anyone Till You (Noble) - 3:18; 20. *Everything Happens to Me [re-take 1] (Adair/Dennis) - 5:18; 21. *Ask Me Now [Take 1] (Monk) - 3:43. Recorded in Los Angeles 10/64-11/64 and New York City 2/65-3/65.

Personnel: Thelonious Monk: piano.


Tracks: 1. Thelonious (Monk) - 3:13; 2. Ugly Beauty (Monk) - 3:17; 3. Raise Four (Monk) - 5:47; 4. Boo Boo's Birthday (Monk) - 5:56; 5. Easy Street (Jones) - 5:53; 6. Green Chimneys (Monk) - 9:00; 7. In Walked Bud (Monk) - 4:17.

Personnel: Thelonious Monk: piano; Charlie Rouse: tenor saxophone; Larry Gales: bass; Ben Riley: drums. Guest: Jon Hendricks: vocals (7).

*=bonus tracks.

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