Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music, Volume 1 – Blue Note 1510

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There's bebop, there's hard bop—and then there's Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
.

It's not hard to imagine where the bebop pioneers found their new sound in the late 1940s, after World War II. It emerged from the big bands, which were dying. It was a natural progression. Hard-charging, uber-fast soloists pushed the limits of speed and rhythm, to the chagrin of the jazz establishment, but to the thrill of listeners. It was new, but it wasn't a giant leap—more of an incremental step.

Thelonious Monk was there. But it's clear from Genius of Modern Music, Volume 1, that Monk was hearing something very different in his head than what Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
, Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
and Bud Powell
Bud Powell
Bud Powell
1924 - 1966
piano
were hearing. This CD chronicles the first recording sessions with Monk as leader in 1947, and it's clear that Monk, even at this very early date, was creating something no one had heard before.

It's hard to put the Monk sound into words. It's off-kilter, with unusual rhythms and unexpected notes. It's melodic, but not of the standard Tin Pan Alley/Great American Songbook variety. It is fast and improvisational, but just a little bit different than the usual bebop flights of fancy.

Genius of Modern Music, Volume 1, features the first recordings of many classic Monk tunes by Monk. Each runs about 3 minutes, so there are no lengthy solos. Each is simply a nugget of angular melody, followed by short solo sprints, then it's off to the next tune.

Oh, but what's there is choice. While the horns play the expected bebop riffs, Monk is off doing something almost completely different. It's not that the horns don't get Monk. It's that Monk, even in 1947, was already pushing past the standard bebop tropes.

And what a selection of classic Monk tunes. There's "Thelonious" and "Off Minor" and "Ruby My Dear" and "Well You Needn't" and the all-time Monk ballad pleaser, "Round Midnight." These are the first takes ever by Monk on record and they are fully formed. Historically, these are comparable to Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971
trumpet
's Hot Fives and Sevens, or Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
's jungle bands of the 1920s and 1930s—but with much better sound.

The horns are OK, but not all-star quality. Idrees Sulieman and George Taitt on trumpet, Danny Quebec West and Sahib Shihab
Sahib Shihab
Sahib Shihab
1925 - 1989
reeds
on alto, Billy Smith on tenor are good, but not great. The drumming by Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
drums
is innovative. But it's Monk you came to hear, and his piano sound is as original and, yes, fun as you'd expect. It's heard best on the 10 sides with just a piano-bass-drums trio.

There's more where this came from. Volume 2 features Monk sessions from 1951 and '52, including one with Kenny Dorham
Kenny Dorham
Kenny Dorham
1924 - 1972
trumpet
on trumpet and Lou Donaldson
Lou Donaldson
Lou Donaldson
b.1926
saxophone
on alto. And there another CD featuring Monk and vibraphonist Milt Jackson
Milt Jackson
Milt Jackson
1923 - 1999
vibraphone
. You can find them all on the box set of Monk's Complete Blue Note Recordings—a very worthwhile investment.

But for a one-disc treat of historic Monk that is extremely listenable, you can do much worse than Genius of Modern Music, Volume 1.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Availability: Many copies on Amazon, new and used

Cost: Under $4

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