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African Jazz

Four Monks From Columbia

By Published: October 1, 2003

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.

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