Thelonious Monk: Thelonius Monk Trio (1954)
Ben Franklin reported in his autobiography that he once spent the better part of a day sharpening an old ax, determined to return it to its original luster. He finally gave up, concluding that perhaps "a speckled ax was best after all". By this he meant that sometimes the imperfections inherent in things are what make them worthwhile. Music is no different; sometimes in the quest for perfection, we end up sacrificing character. No one better exemplifies this philosophy than Thelonious Monk, whose records, especially the earlier recordings, often seem a bit ragged and imprecise around the edges, but exhibit a certain charm that is addictive. No one who buys one Monk album can resist buying another.
This CD, which has recently been restored in crisp 20 bit remastering, is arguably the best recording Monk ever made. Most of these songs will be familiar to even the most casual Monk fan, but still sound fresh since Monk was constantly reworking tunes, approaching them from new angles, and adding new flourishes and accents. Best of all, Monk's idiosyncratic piano style, which never changed over the years, is best displayed in a trio setting. No one else raised imprecise technique and ragged melodies to an art form like Monk. But, in the end the joke's on us; it's all part of the act. Monk's tunes, for all their apparent simplicity and catchiness, are notoriously difficult to play and Monk's style, clumsy as it may sound, is deliberately so. Monk developed a music that followed its own rules and logic, yet never seemed dry and stodgy and was always filled with unexpected twists and turns. Who else but Monk would start off a tune with bewildering arpeggios of some oddball chord progression ("Trinkle Tinkle") or three chords that sound like he played them by pounding the keyboard with his elbows ("Little Rootie Tootie"). Even standards take on new life under the Monk treatment; "Just A Gigolo"(which Monk pretty much took over as his own tune anyway) is like a broken Ming vase put back together with glue, patched together, but not quite like the original. The end result is startling, but beautiful all the same.
So how is this recording better than most of the other recordings Monk made? This one wears its imperfections on its sleeve. Prestige tended to let Monk really cut loose in the studio, not spending much time polishing his performances or dictating how he should play. The ruggedness and informality suits Monks music just fine; contrast the tunes on here with their counterparts on the Columbia sessions, which sound much more rehearsed and directed and lack spontaneity and energy as a result. Even Riverside, where made his most widely received recordings, at first tried to tone him down by having him record Ellington tunes at first. Monk had yet to gain the widespread acceptance he would earn through records like "Brilliant Corners"at the time of this recording, and perhaps he still felt like he had something to prove. Nevertheless, the lack of spit and polish here makes these performances really sparkle.
Track Listing: Little Rootie Tootie, Sweet and Lovely, Bye-Ya, Monk's Dream, Trinkle Tinkle, These Foolish Things, Blue Monk, Just A Gigolo, Bemsha Swing, Reflections.
Personnel: Thelonious Monk, piano; Gary Mapp, Percy Heath, bass; Art Blakey, Max Roach, drums.
Record Label: Fantasy Jazz