Intermittently available over the years on various labels and in various guises (most recently as Thelonious Monk Quartet in Japan and 1963: In Japan), this album catches Monk on the cusp between his unflaggingly inventive, mould-breaking Riverside years and his less consistently exploratory, later period with CBS.
Clocking in at just over 38 minutes, The Classic Quartet is a set the group recorded for Japanese TV during a short tour of the country in May, 1963. The sound, enhanced from videotape, is surprisingly good: solid and generally well-balanced throughout (though Charlie Rouse could perhaps have been a little further forward in the mix and Butch Warren a little further back).
The band likewise. They turn in solid performances of familiar material, and each of the five tracks at some point hits the high groundMonk's solos on "Epistrophy," "Just A Gigolo" and "Blue Monk"; Rouse's solos on "Evidence" and "Blue Monk"; and Frank Dunlop's solos on "Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are" and "Evidence." (Compared to his rhythm section partner Dunlop, the recently drafted-in Warren is a rather more plodding, metronomic force, useful enough in the ensemble passages, not so compelling during his solos).
While it's always a pleasure to hear a stretched out "Epistrophy" (here just under six minutes long) rather than the usual brief set-opening theme statement, the best tracks are probably "Just A Gigolo" and "Blue Monk." Monk was able to get so deep inside his favourite standards, and turn them so thoroughly inside out, that at its best the effect is one of the tune having been written specially for him. The piano-only treatment of "Just A Gigolo" is one of those little treasures. At just over three minutes, "Gigolo" is the shortest track on the album. "Blue Monk," at over eleven minutes, is the longest, taken at an easy, swinging, measured pace. Rouse turns in a muscular solo, but it's Monk himself who shines brightest, investing his ten-year-old warhorse with spontaneity and wit, funk and dissonance.
Probably appealing most to the Monkian hardcore, it's good to have The Classic Quartet back on the menu.
Personnel: Thelonious Monk: piano; Charlie Rouse: tenor saxophone; Butch Warren: bass; Frankie Dunlop: drums.