One of the primary incentives of box sets is the promise of previous unreleased material. Their comprehensive nature points facilitates (and often mandates) the inclusion of any and all extant recordings by an artist during a given time frame. Frequently such sweeping attention to discographical detail comes at the cost of playability. Verve’s exhaustive approach to the catalogs of Billie Holiday, Bill Evans and even Bud Powell are perfect cases in point, trading up playability for what sometimes seems like an excessive string of studio fragments and alternate takes. Fortunately this Fantasy set is small enough in scope and size to remain commodious both for the casual listener as well as the unrepentant Monk fanatic.
While this compendium of Monk’s transitional work for the Prestige label necessarily falls short in the ‘extras’ department it’s perhaps to be expected given the stature of it’s subject. The odds of a heretofore-unreleased Monk session or side languishing in some vault somewhere are inherently slim to none. In addition, all of the music is currently available on single disc releases and much of it overlaps with material found on other Prestige boxes by Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis. So these are the drawbacks, but what of the music? In a word, like most of what Monk crafted during his lifetime it’s near indispensable.
Stylistically speaking the majority of the music ranks in similar fashion to Coltrane’s work for the Atlantic label and visits the maestro in flux and prior to his career defining work for the Riverside label. Trane’s Atlantic albums demonstrate an artist in the process of transformation. So do these sessions when it comma’s to Monk’s music. The exceptions are the first four tracks on Disc One culled from a session with Coleman Hawkins that also just happened to be Monk’s first time in a recording studio. While an interesting example of the pianist in more protean form the real star of these numbers is Hawkins, though Monk still manages to turn in some ear-bending solos despite his sideman status. The most exciting moments of the set however unfold on his later sessions as leader. The initial trio session with Blakey and the obscure bassist Mapp refracts the rays of Bop through a Monkish lens on a series of then (and still) fresh originals and a pair of standards. Blakey’s big beat matches Monk’s craggy harmonic shapes like hand in glove while Mapp struggles to keep straight time beside them. Roach’s residency in the drum chair on the second half of the session is less overtly combustible, but just as effective.
The date from a year later with Rollins isn’t quite as cohesive thanks mainly to Watkins who was a last minute substitution for an absentee Copeland. Largely unfamiliar with the charts the French hornist makes the most of precarious position and still manages to turn out some wonderful phrases on his unwieldy brass. Rollins’ is far less reticent and smokes like a match on wet tinder, especially on the brush-fire version of “Let’s Call This.” The benchmark of the set though is the quintet date with Foster and Copeland. Though it was to prove Foster’s only record date with Monk the saxophonist seizes his sole opportunity, casts off inhibitions and dives his naked horn deep into the leader’s beautifully skewed harmonic ocean. Monk responds to the saxophonist’s fervor in kind sculpting a crafty series of solos that also serve to stoke the passions of his rhythm mates Russell and Blakey. Copeland’s in fine form too and the session sticks deliciously in the craw long after the music ceases.
The final three sessions on the set serve as a fine summation starting off with another trio outing with Blakey, moving through a Rollins-led quartet and finishing off with an all-star collective comprising half of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Miles, and the incomparable Klook on drums. The latter date ends up producing the most fire both in front of the mikes and behind the scenes thanks to a long-rumored altercation that supposedly went down between Monk and Miles. But whatever the particulars of the fleeting feud the music that survived that day hits a bullseye in terms of creativity especially during Monk’s now legendary solo on the first take of “Bags Groove.”
Today, pointing out the brilliance of Monk is like arguing that we live in a heliocentric galaxy, it’s a given fact, irrefutable and irreducible. But back when these sessions were waxed the evidence was less widespread. How much Monk is enough? That’s a question that can only be answered by the individual listener. But for folks who don’t have this material in its aforementioned previously available incarnations this box provides a convenient and stylish means of accessing it all in one place.
Tracks/Players:Monk- piano, on all tracks. Flyin’ Hawk/ Recollections/ Drifting On a Reed/ On the Bean: Coleman Hawkins- tenor saxophone; Edward “Bass” Robinson- bass; Denzil Best- drums, 12/19/44. Bye-Ya/ Monk’s Dream/ Sweet and Lovely/ Little Rootie Tootie/ Bemsha Swing*/ Reflections*/ These Foolish Things*/ Trinkle Tinkle*: Gary Mapp- bass; Art Blakey- drums; Max Roach- drums*, 10/15/52 & 12/18/52*./ Think Of One (take 1)/ Let’s Call This/ Think Of One (take 2)/ Friday the 13th: Sonny Rollins- tenor saxophone; Julius Watkins- French horn; Percy Heath- bass; Willie Jones- drums, 11/13/53./ We See/ Locomotive/ Smoke Gets In Your Eyes/ Hackensack: Frank Foster- tenor saxophone; Ray Copeland- trumpet; Curley Russell- bass; Art Blakey- drums, 5/11/54./ Nutty/ Just a Gigolo/ Work/ Blue Monk: Percy Heath- bass; Art Blakey- drums, 9/22/54./ I Want To Be Happy/ The Way You Look Tonight/ More Than You Know: Sonny Rollins- tenor saxophone; Tommy Potter- bass; Arthur Taylor- drums, 10/25/54./ Bag’s Groove (take 1)/ Swing/ The Man I Love (take 1)/ Swing Spring/ Bag’s Groove (take 2)/ The Man I Love (take 2): Miles Davis- trumpet; Milt Jackson- vibes; Percy Heath- bass; Kenny Clarke- drums, 12/24/54.
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