Although critical accuracy and integrity are usually dependent on avoiding categorical endorsement and suggestions of purchase, there have to be some exceptions. In certain cases, this same integrity demands overlooking the rules. So before proceeding any further, let it be said that the Thelonious Records release Monk in Paris: Live at the Olympia
belongs in every music collection, including that of the jazz collector, Monk fanatic, Monk skeptic (do they exist?) and casual jazz fan alike. In fact, given Monk’s lasting influence on the modern musical endeavor, there is a place for this recording in every music collection, irrespective of genre. An adequate endorsement?
There are three reasons for this, none of which have much to do with the music itself. First, this is the initial release from the Thelonious Monk estate archives, issued by Monk’s son’s label, Thelonious Records, which was founded in part to gather and release the plethora of Monk material either not yet available or extant only in bootleg form. Considering Monk’s intractable sense of independence, such that he has become a symbol of artistic autonomy and perseverance, it is fitting that his music be returned to his family’s rightful control.
Second, the material presented is from a live recording of Monk’s touring group, which he maintained irrespective of criticism, accolade, economic difficulties, or monetary success. Moreover, the group reminds us that while Monk engaged in seminal recording sessions, acted as mentor to numerous jazz greats, and left a highly influential body of compositions, he was fundamentally a performing pianist of the highest order who worked on the bandstand night upon night for year after year.
Finally, and perhaps most convincingly, the album includes a bonus DVD of the great Monk in concert in Oslo, Norway. At the beginning of the disc, his son T.S. Monk challenges, “You haven’t heard Monk until you’ve seen him.” The statement proves completely accurate. Certainly, you don’t have to witness his playing to appreciate the music. After all, Monk was never a pop icon dependent on imagery to sustain his popularity. However, the visual cues offered by the DVD’s well-edited and filmed footage provide much insight into Monk’s performance style and instrumental inventions.
Stunning enough is the simultaneously relaxed and intense manner the four performers assume on stage, their graceful yet muscular playing mirrored by the precision and élan of their stage presence. This is the closest many of us will ever come to experiencing a Monk concert, and if more material such as this exists, I for one certainly hope Thelonious Records will make it a regular practice in the future.
In short, the music on Monk in Paris: Live at the Olympia is an outstanding example of Monk’s stature in the jazz pantheon, a place so deserved that even those critics—such as this one—who generally avoid the reductive historical analysis of icon worship, are forced to acknowledge his preeminence. Moreover, the album represents another aspect of Monk’s lasting influence, the total honesty of his approach to music and life.
Despite discrimination of many kinds, Monk relentlessly resisted all outside influence on his music. The jazz world, not to mention the jazz business machine, has profited enormously from this dedication. It is time that not only his music, but also his staunch individualism, be recognized. Not only through accolade, but by returning it to its rightful homes: his family and listeners.