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Columbia Monk

David Rickert By

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Monk’s Columbia recordings have never been as highly regarded as the Riverside sessions, some critics claiming that Monk was merely rehashing material he had previously recorded in inferior versions. However, Monk was always going to offer something new with each session, and in newly remastered versions with extended running time, Monk’s last sessions deserve another look.

Criss Cross
2003

Monk’s first record for Columbia could be accused of being a safe bet since it features a selection of classic Monk tunes instead of new material. However, don’t dismiss it too quickly. On the original recordings of these songs, the pianist played as if he was chiseling the tunes out of marble, and part of the fun was listening to what seemed very much like composition in progress. These recordings, on the other hand, sound more like finished sculptures or polished works of art.

Perhaps Monk sensed that this would be the last time he would record these tunes in the studio, or maybe Macero gave him more takes to hone a flawless performance. Nevertheless, Criss Cross was (and is) a great way for listeners unfamiliar with Monk to experience him for the first time in slightly low-key performances of classic Monk tunes. None of the songs exceeds four minutes and offer an excellent cross section of Monk’s artistry, from the lively “Hackensack” to the artfully constructed “Criss Cross” with a couple of standards thrown in, of course. “Crepuscle With Nellie” is arguably the best rendition of the tune, with Charlie Rouse displaying an empathy and understanding that not even Sonny Rollins could find. Monk may have had more interesting sidemen in his past, but Rouse gave the group a reliability it previously never had. However, “Pannonica” (not on the original LP release but added as a bonus track to the previous CD reissue) meanders too long and “Coming on the Hudson” (a brand new bonus track for this release) is a complicated tune on which not even Rouse can find footing. At any rate, an excellent fresh start.

It’s Monk’s Time
2003

It’s Monk’s Time is in many ways the least compromising of Monk’s Columbia records and the polar opposite of a record like Criss Cross (1962) due to the variety – lengthy renditions of tunes, a couple of solo performances, and a few obscure originals dusted off for the occasion. The session kicks off with what appears to be a solo recording of “Lulu’s Back in Town,” only to evolve from clunky stride into a full-blown quartet version after three minutes, approximating the way Monk approached live performances. Immediately following is one of two pleasant solo readings, both of which feature the relaxed stride and off-center rhythmic accents that Monk used so effectively when freed from the rhythm section.

For once the standards are more interesting than the originals; no classic Monk tunes are featured here, only some of Monk’s weaker compositions. The abrasive “Shuffle Boil” never quite gets off the ground, and “Stuffy Turkey” and “Brake’s Sake” are uninteresting and repetitive, respectively. However, the quartet finds inventive ways to pick through the changes and the sidemen all get ample solo time, Monk thumping out chords in the background, sounding every bit like he’s playing wearing oven mitts.

Surprisingly, the best of the original tunes wasn’t even on the original LP; an inspired reworking of “Epistrophy” casts off the cacophonous horns of the version on Monk’s Music for a smoother approach.

Not a great Monk record, but perhaps it has more to offer for the listener who finds some of the other Columbia releases to be rehashes of former work.

Underground
1967

Underground was Monk’s final quartet recording, but instead of sounding like a last gasp, the modern jazz pioneer proved he had one truly great record left in him. The set kicks off with a rousing version of “Thelonious,” an old tune that has lost none of its freshness over the decades. However, the real treat is that for once on a Columbia release, four brand new songs are featured, all of which are worthy entries into Monk’s vast catalog of off-kilter melodies. The light-hearted “Boo Boo’s Birthday” and “Green Chimneys” both feature tricky chord progressions and quirky beginnings – the latter has a 21-bar head – whereas “Raise Four” makes judicious use of the flatted fifth. The aptly-titled “Ugly Beauty” is a haunting ballad in waltz time featuring excellent soloing from Rouse. The only other older tune played is “In Walked Bud,” where Jon Hendricks steps in to add vocals.

The best improvement to the reissue is not the improved sound, however, but that each track has been restored to its original running time. The truncated versions did an injustice to the quartet, whose interplay and expertise with Monk’s style is more perfectly captured here. Perhaps the title was a joke, for Monk had not been “underground” for years. As a final recording, this CD easily ranks with Monk’s best.

Criss Cross
Tracks: 1. Hackensack 2. Tea For Two 3. Criss Cross 4. Eronel 5. Rhythm-A-Ning 6. Don’t Blame Me 7. Think Of One 8. Crepuscle With Nellie 9. Pannonica 10. Coming on the Hudson 11. Tea For Two (alt. Take) 12. Eronel (alt. take).
Personnel: Thelonius Monk – piano; Charlie Rouse – tenor sax; John Ore – bass; Frankie Dunlop – drums.

It’s Monk’s Time
Tracks: 1. Lulu’s Back in Town 2. Memories of You 3. Stuffy Turkey 4. Brake’s Sake 5. Nice Work If You Can Get It 6. Shuffle Boil 7. Epistrophy 8. Nice Work If You Can Get It (alt. take) 9. Shuffle Boil (alt. take).
Personnel: Thelonious Monk-piano; Charlie Rouse-tenor saxophone; Butch Warren-bass; Ben Riley-drums.

Underground
Tracks: 1. Thelonious 2. Ugly Beauty 3. Raise Four 4. Boo Boo’s Birthday 5. Easy Street 6. Green Chimneys 7. In Walked Bud 8. Ugly Beauty (alt. take) 9. Boo Boo’s Birthday (alt take) 10. Thelonious (alt. take).
Personnel: Thelonious Monk-piano; Charlie Rouse-tenor saxophone; Larry Gales-bass; Ben Riley-drums; Jon Hendricks-vocals (#7).


Columbia on the web: http://www.legacyrecordings.com


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