Another stone resurrection from the Swiss-based ezz-thetics label, Celebrating 75 Years Of His First Recordings Revisited collects 23 of the tracks Thelonious Monk recorded for Blue Note between 1947 and 1952, remastered by ezzthetics' sonic jedi Michael Brändli at Hardstudios in Winterthur. Situated north of Zurich, Winterthur is Switzerland's equivalent of Silicon Valley and Hardstudios looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. The audio quality Brändli achieves there for ezz-thetics' has been raved about many times on these pages. Celebrating 75 Years Of His First Recordings Revisited finds the engineer once more at the top of his game.
The tracks were all released by Blue Note in 2001 on the Monk CDs Genius Of Modern Music, Volume One and Genius Of Modern Music, Volume Two and the Milt Jackson CD Wizard Of The Vibes. Since then, audio technology has advanced spectacularly and exalted building-blocks of modern jazz such as Monk's first recordings are prime candidates for replatforming.
It is often supposed that Blue Note's championing of Monk was mainly down to label owner Alfred Lion. In fact, Lion's wife Lorraine was at least equally responsible. In her memoir Alive At The Village Vanguard, Lorraine (who later remarried Village Vanguard owner Max Gordon) describes rocking up at Monk's apartment in autumn 1947 on an exploratory A&R mission, accompanied by Alfred and Blue Note's talent scout, tenor saxophonist Ike Quebec. "We all sat down on Monk's narrow bedour legs straight out in front of us, like children... And Monk played, with his back to us... I fell in love." Until 1947, Blue Note had recorded only pre-bop styles, specialising in stride piano, and it was Monk's stride roots which sold him to the Lions. In Leslie Gourse's Monk biography, Straight, No Chaser, Lorraine says: "In those early days I couldn't listen to a lot of avant-garde musicians... Monk made the transition for me, because I was hearing his great stride piano style from James P. Johnson and the blues and his great left hand."
Despite the Lions' enthusiasm, Monk was a hard sell to the jazz business, most of whose gatekeepers regarded him as a primitivist lacking keyboard technique and with little understanding of harmony. In 1948, Lorraine, who was Blue Note's one-woman publicity department, gave Monk the memorable tagline The High Priest of Bebop, an ear worm which helped goad recalcitrant journalists and club owners into recognising his talents.
Anyway, after hearing Celebrating 75 Years Of His First Recordings Revisited, the immediate question one wants to ask is this: when is volume two coming out?
Thelonious; ’Round Midnight; Well You Needn’t; Off Minor; In Walked Bud; Epistrophy; Ruby My Dear; Evidence; Humph; Misterioso; I Mean You; Monk’s Mood; Who Knows; Four In One; Straight No Chaser; Criss-Cross; Eronel; Ask Me Now; Skippy; Let’s Cool One; Hornin’ In; Introspections; Sixteen.
Various personnel including: Milt Jackson (vibraphone), Idrees Sulieman (trumpet), Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Sahib Shihab (alto saxophone), Gene Ramey (bass), Al McKibbon (bass), Art Blakey (drums), Shadown Wilson (drums), Max Roach (drums), others.
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Chris May is a senior editor of All About Jazz. He was previously the editor of the pioneering magazine Black Music & Jazz Review, and more recently editor of the style / culture / history magazine Jocks & Nerds.