Alfred Lion was so captivated by Monk that once he got him in the studio, he recorded everything he had. However, most of the jazz listening public wasn’t quite open to such a maverick approach, and Monk struggled to find an audience early on. Once Monk hopped to Riverside after a brief stint at Prestige, producer Orrin Keepnews decided his first record needed to be a collection of Ellington songs. Ellington was an established artist with a wide selection of popular tunes, and thus the session proved to be one that was still a showcase for Monk’s inimitable style, yet without the angular melodies that some found abrasive.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, the Ellington record seems fairly tame, and those who have been enthralled with the Blue Note recordings, or the later Brilliant Corners, or virtually anything else in Monk’s repertoire, may find that they haven’t missed anything with this one. Still, a Monk record of any kind is going to be a worthy investment, and it’s always intriguing to see how Monk constructs other artist’s work with his own set of tools.
In this case, Monk approached every tune at an ambling pace, as if he’s still picking out the notes for the tunes (which, judging by the liner notes, may have been the case). Even “It Don’t Mean A Thing” is taken at a pace that would have put Sonny Greer to sleep, and only “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart” and a masterfully rhythmic “Caravan” show any degree of propulsion. The majority of the record lags a bit, as if Monk wasn’t quite committed to the concept, and the ballads are a bit too forcefully played, when they could benefit from a softer touch.
The rhythm section holds its own quite well, and Pettiford especially seems more at home with the Ellington material than the Monk originals that would give him fits on later sessions. However, once freed from the bass and drums, Monk turns in a classic solo reading of, appropriately enough, “Solitude,” and it will be here that most Monk fans will find that they have found their home, with the subtly shifting tempos and the strong stride inflections left hand.
Ironically, in the attempt to make Monk more accessible, Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington only obscures what makes Monk so captivating in the first place. Although these renditions are pleasant, one longs for an oddity like “Straight, No Chaser” or “Hackensack” to shake things up. A worthy addition to any serious Monk collection, but those familiar with Monk’s other work may find themselves more absorbed in figuring out what the hell the cover has to do with anything than with the music itself.
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Personnel: Thelonious Monk-piano; Oscar Pettiford-bass; Kenny Clarke-drums.