Fellow jazz fans are likely familiar with Columbia’s reissue program of the '80s and '90s. These “Columbia Jazz Masterpieces” were packaged with an ugly blue/purple border that cropped the original album art and contained muddy and sometimes horrific sounding “remastering” jobs. Attempting to make up for past sins, Sony’s Columbia Legacy division has been responsible for the more recent trickle of product, although many important sessions still remain in the vaults (i.e. Duke Ellington).
Original album art (minus the cheesy borders), improved or expanded liner notes, bonus tracks and terrific sound are now the benchmark for the company’s reissue program. Some of the most welcome reissues are several Thelonious Monk gems released over the past few years, two of which, Criss-Cross and Solo Monk, are considered here.
The sixties signaled a new, productive phase for Monk that included his signing with Columbia in 1962 and shortly thereafter, a Time Magazine cover story (joining other Columbia artists like Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington). Some consider the Columbia years as merely an attempt for the company to cash in on Monk’s auto-pilot performances, however this period represents one some of this leading light’s consistent and valuable work. The highlight of this period was the attuned interplay between Monk and his tenor saxophonist, the criminally underrated Charlie Rouse.
Criss-Cross was Monk’s second record for Columbia and features Rouse and the rock-solid rhythm team of bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop. Throughout the album’s original eight tracks plus four extras, the group is tight, in tune with Monk and willing to share in the good vibes of the session. A rallying cry to the detractors is that no new tunes are included here (except for the bonus cuts). Rather, Monk and the group revisit compositions that date back to his first recordings for Blue Note (including the title track and “Eronel”), as well as a few standards. The album’s first track, the classic “Hackensack” sets the stage for the rest of the session as a stirring, energetic performance. Following on its heels, Rouse sits out on “Tea For Two,” where Monk demonstrates his debt to the master stride players of yore. His percussive attack leads the other gents and Ore’s tightly driven bass follows and pushes Monk along steadily.
Rouse is back in on the title track, a thorny number that demonstrates the level of rapport between the front line, as Rouse and Monk charge through the piece’s intricacies. Other tracks, like “Eronel,” “Well You Needn’t” and “Think Of One” continue in this tremendously swinging mode that captures the mature and sophisticated Monk. Also noteworthy is the rendition of Monk’s love poem for his wife, “Crepuscule With Nellie,” an emotional performance that is highlighted by the deeply moving approach of Rouse. As a final note, Monk takes center stage on the standard, “Don’t Blame Me,” a showcase for his idiosyncratic style that favors both innovation and lucid beauty.
A cynic might say that bonus cuts are nothing but a marketer’s attempt to sell the faithful something that they already own. While that may be the case with many Jazz reissues, Monk is one of the brilliant rare artists whose alternate takes usually add value. Unfortunately, that is not necessarily the case here, except for the revelatory “Tea For Two,” where a slippery, romantic sensibility informs this very different version. Otherwise, the heartfelt ode to the Baroness Nice De Koenigswater, “Pannonica,” the somewhat awkward version of a new track, “Coming On The Hudson,” and the swinging “Eronel” add little to the album’s original tracks.
Criss-Cross might not be a contender for Monk’s top 25; however, it is an immensely entertaining record that should be welcome in any Monk collection (if you don’t have it already). It may also be a good starting point for a newbie who seeks more accessible Monk.
For many pianists, the solo setting is a marvelous way to view the artist without any outside interference. Monk excelled in this format, whether interpreting his own or the works of others, releasing several sessions over his life, including his initial 1954 date for the French Vogue and his high-water mark on Riverside, Thelonious Himself. The setting was welcome as it provided him ample room to step out and demonstrate that while he may have lacked “conventional technique,” he was a remarkably individualistic stylist. Thus, Solo Monk was Monk’s fourth solo record, mostly recorded in late 1964 and released in 1965, and is a straightforward run through a program of mostly standards, with a few originals thrown in for good measure. To sweeten the deal, Columbia has thrown in nine bonus cuts that further shed light on the original performances.
As a whole, it is another fascinating look at Monk, more mature than either the Paris or Riverside sessions, the program is charming, pure, yet deeply emotional. Like “Hackensack” and “Tea For Two” were above, Solo Monk’s opening cadence, his rendition of “Dinah,” is also a benchmark in Monkology. This rendition is a happy go lucky ode to his influences, replete with Monk’s keen sense of humor. On the other hand, the release is full of introspective poignancy, with the touching, “I Surrender Dear,” the precious “Ruby, My Dear” and a revisitation from Thelonious Himself, “I Should Care.” On the latter, Monk takes his time with the goal being to accentuate the melodic principles. While it seems a bit trite to say this, both versions of “I’m Confessin’ That I Love You” and “Sweet and Lovely” are delightful, the former, a stately walk and the latter, an emotive performance fitting of its title.
If you could only own one solo Monk disc, perhaps Solo Monk wouldn’t be the one to spring for. However, this release is another one to relish.
Personnel: Thelonious Monk-Piano, Charlie Rouse-Tenor Sax, John Ore-Bass, Frankie Dunlop-Drums.
Track Listing: Hackensack / Tea For Two / Criss Cross / Eronel / Rhythm-A-Ning / Don't Blame Me / Think Of One / Crepuscule With Nellie / Pannonica / Coming On The Hudson / Tea For Two / Eronel.
Personnel: Thelonious Monk-Piano.
Track Listing: Dinah (Take 2) / I Surrender, Dear / Sweet And Lovely (Take 2) / North Of The Sunset / Ruby, My Dear (Take 3) / I'm Confessin' (That I Love You) / I Hadn't Anyone Till You / Everything Happens To Me (Take 3) / Monk's Point / I Should Care / Ask Me Now (Take 2) / These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You) / Introspection / Darn That Dream / Dinah (Take 1) / Sweet And Lovely (Take 1) / Ruby, My Dear (Take 1) / I'm Confessin' (That I Love You) (Take 1) / I Hadn't Anyone Till You (Take 2) / Everything Happens To Me (Retake 1) / Ask Me Now (Take 1)