Four Monks From Columbia

AAJ Staff By

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However confusing the music of Thelonious Monk may have been during his later years, the documents of his fertile '60s period have been downright bewildering. Live and studio material has been scattered around on both original releases and various reissues, liner notes have come and gone, and concert material has either ended up completely lost or tucked away on rare Japanese bootlegs.

To commemorate various anniversaries—the pianist's 80th birthday, in 1997; the 20th year after his death, in 2002—reissue producer Orrin Keepnews has resurrected Monk's Columbia material in style. Among the particularly noteworthy discs in this expanding series is a previously unknown recording of a live quartet performance at Newport in 1965, an unexpected and rather spectacular find. (That particular set came out last year, doubled with Monk's 1963 festival performance.)

Now well along on the track of recovery, Columbia has simultaneously put out four new reissues of mid-'60s studio material. Solo Monk is exactly what it says; the rest feature quartets. Saxophonist Charlie Rouse, a particularly sympathetic partner for many years, shows up on all three. The early rhythm section on Criss Cross (bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop) moves up a notch with the substitution of Butch Warren and Ben Riley later on.

Each of these four discs is a different sort of celebration. The problem, of course, is which one to pick. Monk completists will chase after everything for the original and new documentation, as well as unreleased tracks and remastering. The rest will have to see what sounds interesting.

Before proceeding to the original reviews, it's important to point out that Columbia's promotional materials are downright ugly and uninformative. Based on promises contained therein, the final releases will retain original art and liner notes along with new essays and nifty packaging. No way for me to speak about that, so I'll just focus on the music here.

In this collection:

Criss-Cross (1963)
It's Monk's Time (1964)
Solo Monk (1965)
Underground (1968)

Thelonious Monk
CK 65357 (1963: CL 2038)

Monk's '60s recordings for Columbia follow on the heels of a heap of material released by Milestone and Riverside in the previous decade. Criss-Cross presents him in the same configuration found on Monk's Dream, a hard-swinging combo that gives off just enough energy to propel the music forward without sounding rough or edgy.

It launches with "Hackensack," a '50s composition Monk performed for many years. Charlie Rouse gets things up to speed with a relatively bright and well-connected solo, sailing over the changes in a light and frisky manner. Monk bounces around, hinting at the sort of odd timing that made him famous. Frankie Dunlop takes a tight, facile hand at the drums here and elsewhere, regularly decorating the beat in an understated way and foreshadowing melodic twists in an uncannily intuitive way. John Ore keeps pushing forward, assuming a totally unobtrusive role that usually consists of walking basslines.

The title track has a conversational melody that plays with call-and-response and heads toward resolution. It's not a terribly demanding piece, nevertheless still appealing in its own unassuming way. The slower moments scattered on the disc tend to sag a bit, as if they were included for perfunctory reasons, but that may just reflect my bias. Monk can do much more with time when things are moving along at at least a mid-tempo clip. The relatively downtempo "Pannonica" is an exception, quite soulful and enthusiastic. The three bonus tracks tacked on at the end account for 18 minutes, including a second, more relaxed version of "Tea for Two." (Ninth take! Monk was never known to cut corners on record.)

Criss Cross strikes a conscious balance between fast and slow, punch and lyricism. The bedrock foundation of its rhythm section would be replaced a year later on It's Monk Time, so this presents a unique opportunity to compare the players. There's certainly no shortage of connectivity here.

Thelonious Monk
It's Monk's Time
CK 63532 (1964: CL 2184)

If you have to pick a weak point among these four releases, It's Monk's Time would be it. That's only in a relative sense, of course, since the pianist did not really put out bad records. (The only recurrent problem elsewhere, not one of his making, was the occasional muddy sound quality. That factor is mitigated here by attentive remastering, but like the other reissues in this series there's still some compromise in the piano's tone and the presence of the bass. That's probably inevitable given the time and technology when these tracks were laid down.)


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