Art Blakey & Thelonious Monk: Atlantic Studio Sessions May 14-15, 1957

Mark Sabbatini By

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Don't play this in the presence of anyone except a hardcore jazz fan unless you enjoy having people think you're insane.

Insanity is sometimes defined as doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. So maybe it's best to spell out early what's in this collection of alternate and incomplete takes from the recording of Art Blakey and Thelonius Monk's Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk , a 1957 album that received a five-star rating from "The Penguin Guide To Compact Discs."

Songs: 38. Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes. Actual number of compositions: three.

In short, it's about equal to the "extras" material often found on the final disc or two of elaborate boxed sets. There are 14 variations of "Blue Monk," 18 of "Evidence" and six of "I Mean You." Some cuts last less than 20 seconds before the assembled quintet gives up, others go their full seven or eight minutes.

There's one heavy price to pay for this "free" collection (posted at www.easytree.org/torrents-details.php?id=24570): It's in an uncompressed audio format and therefore is almost 600MB in size. A high-speed connection is obviously a must and it's probably best to start the download just before going to work or bed. Compressed into high-quality MP3s afterward (to the horror of audio purists, no doubt), it took up 120MB on my hard drive.

Some people live for this stuff, of course, making it well worth the time and space. It's fascinating insight into alternative musings by the musicians - or maybe just reassuring to know legends screw up too sometimes. And make no mistake; this is a premium group with some great moments, catching both Monk and Blakey at peak times in their careers, but plenty of lesser ones.

The opening 24-second take of "Blue Monk," for example, begins with a barely audible "take one," followed by silence for the remaining 20 seconds. Maybe the equipment wasn't working, one or more of the musicians wasn't ready, or they didn't hear the engineer. The disadvantage of downloading this kind of material, instead of getting a box of discs with elaborate linear notes, is one can only guess at why certain takes were abandoned.

The seventh take of "Blue Monk," the first without lengthy starting delays or abandoned takes, is a good base reference for comparing variations. It's also got the leisurely pace and soloing comparable in quality to the original. Blakey's sidemen (especially Johnny Griffin on tenor sax and Bill Hardman on trumpet) are more the star than Monk, but the pianist delivers a pleasantly melodic and somewhat cheery solo. They try speeding it up during a few subsequent takes and then again at the very end of the set, but never get far.

"Evidence" is more interesting, if only because it's a more upbeat composition (the first take on the second "disc" is a good reference point). But it also feels like the players are varying their approach more. Griffin tries injecting variations on "Skip To My Lou" into a few of his solo openings, for instance, while Blakey shows his mastery with some nice variety in a series of intensely quick interludes.

The other tune is "I Mean You," with the third take - the fourth song on the second disc - an excellent reference. It's another fairly upbeat swing piece with a more unconventional rhythm that makes a good foundation for the horn players' rapid and rich runs across the scales. Monk, meanwhile, is by far at his most playful. As a whole it may be the best song in the entire collection. Unfortunately, the third take is the only complete one - the rest never get far enough for the solos to develop.

Only an idiot or someone wanting in-laws to leave in a hurry would put this on the living room stereo when company comes over. But it'd be a similar act of idiocy for any serious fans of these players - or most people with any kind of studious interest in jazz - to pass up this background material from one of the genre's premier records. Take it in manageable doses, such as comparing one player's solos from take to take or all the reasons for ending the short cuts, and view it as an invaluable learning rather than listening experience.


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