Only with hindsight can it be ascertained that 1959 marked the pinnacle of jazz music as a cultural force in the United States. In 1959, the Mount Rushmore presidents of jazz were recording their definitive statements: John Coltrane
's Giant Steps
(Atlantic, 1960), Dave Brubeck
's Time Out
(Columbia, 1959), Charles Mingus
' Ah Um
(Columbia, 1959), Miles Davis
' Kind Of Blue
(Columbia, 1959) and Ornette Coleman
's The Shape Of Jazz To Come
That year also signaled the upcoming split of allegiances for the post-World War II generations between jazz and the baby boomers' rock 'n' roll. At the center of this massive year was Thelonious Monk
, a pianist at the zenith of his career. He had been championed by Alfred Lion on his small Blue Note Records label in the early 1940s, then recorded for Prestige and Riverside Records. This year included his famous Town Hall concert, a 10-piece presentation of his compositions and the pianist's partnership with saxophonist Charlie Rouse
, which lasted for nearly sixteen years. Soon he would be signed to the behemoth Columbia Records and appear on the cover of Time Magazine
. However, it can be argued, all of this served as a postscript to his musical masterwork.
Although pieces of this performance have been floating around as bootlegs, hearing Monk in full flight at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1959, playing the now-familiar tunes, is a rediscovery of his genius. This release, part of a Wolfgang's Vault presentation of 300 classic Newport concerts (1955-1975), comes as a digital download or in a limited edition 180 gram vinyl edition. In quartet with Rouse, bassist Sam Jones
and drummer Art Taylor
, the pianist delivers a rousing performance described by Dan Morgenstern as "the greatest performance I have heard him give" and "the most moving experience of the festival."
With Monk dressed in a blue fedora, the band opens with the skip, hop and thunk of "In Walked Bud," Monk's tribute to his friend Bud Powell
. Rouse takes center stage here, smoothing out the serrated edges of Monk's piano, with the pianist satisfied to accompany before taking (for him) a quite relaxed solo, quoting songs from his oeuvre. "Blue Monk," an oft-called blues-blowing vehicle, features more of Rouse's yang to Monk's ying. Taylor's muscled drumming is a constant thrust here, and Jones walks the blues walk as the piece turns the outside venue into a very dark and smoky basement club. Monk's solo translates the blues into his personal dialect of sidelong melody.
Side two (it is an LP) opens with a perfect gem, "Crepuscule with Nellie." Monk delivers an entire life's work in just two-and-a-half minutes. It is a taste of what he and Rouse would bandy about over the next decade. "Well You Needn't" gets tossed back and forth between the players, while "Rhythm-a-ning" swings hard, with Taylor's bold drumming balanced by Rouse's calm delivery. Monk comps by punching his percussive chords behind Rouse. When he solos (his tapping foot can be heard), his internal logic transforms into the musical language that was once such a strange trip but is now so familiar.