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Ornette Coleman & Thelonious Monk: One Revolution After Another

Chris May By

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Two albums in Original Jazz Classics' Remasters series capture one iconoclastic genius at his late 1950s' peak and another limbering up for 1960s' notoriety. Each disc benefits from Joe Tarantino's resonant remastering.

Ornette Coleman

Something Else!!!!

Original Jazz Classics/Contemporary

2011 (1958)

In early 1958, when Contemporary's director/producer, Lester Koenig, recorded him on Something Else!!!!, alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman was still waiting in the wings, unknown outside a few local scenes. His style was fetal rather than fully formed and, in light of the step change Coleman would make in 1959/60, on The Shape Of Jazz To Come and Change Of The Century (both Atlantic), and despite its multiple exclamation marks, the album's title was more of a prophecy than a factual description. Indeed, with hindsight, the 1958 set might be more accurately titled Piano!! Chord Changes!!—for an instrument and an approach to music making that would each only rarely resurface in Coleman's work. For the most part, the album sounds in 2011 like some sort of weird bop/hard bop hybrid, but not a wholly new genus.

Something Else!!!! did, however, unveil three important Coleman trademarks: his raw, vocalized tone; his gift for writing attractive, quirky melodies; and his feral, driving swing. In 1958, the first of these—produced on a student-level, plastic saxophone—was, evidently, enough to justify the exclamation marks. It is a measure of how much jazz has changed in the last 50 years that Coleman's sound no longer seems strange; and a measure of his talent that it is still utterly thrilling, even transformative. In 2011, what sounds strange is the presence of pianist Walter Norris—whose generally unremarkable, peripatetic career went on to include seven years as director of music at New York's Playboy club—and the use, on all but the opening and closing tunes, of chord changes.

"Invisible" and "The Sphinx" both hint at the fully "harmolodic" style Coleman would unveil during his 1959-61 spell with Atlantic, which replaced changes with collective improvisation without a single harmonic center, and posited a holistic approach to rhythm, harmony and melody. Trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins stayed in the group for the Atlantic masterpieces, Norris was gone (starting his stint with the Bunnies in 1963), and bassist Don Payne was replaced by Charlie Haden. As a prelude to the Atlantics, Something Else!!!! is fascinating listening.

Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Alone In San Francisco

Original Jazz Classics/Riverside

2011 (1959)

In 1959, Thelonious Monk's radical approach to harmony, rhythm and pianism had been rocking the boat for around 15 years. It was still the sound of surprise, and had yet to settle into the overly codified approach which kicked in during the mid-1960s; but Monk was delivering few new angles and there was a slowdown in new compositions. By 1959, the pianist had arrived: his composing and improvising genius was no longer being contested by any credible observer; he had produced what would prove to be his landmark ensemble album, Brilliant Corners (Riverside, 1956); and he had done jazz the favor of putting saxophonist John Coltrane through finishing school during an extended 1957 residency at New York's Five Spot. Monk had reached artistic maturity, but not stasis.

On Thelonious Alone In San Francisco, Monk was recorded solo by his Riverside director/producer, Orrin Keepnews, because he was performing in the city with a pickup band which was not, apparently, sufficiently at home with his book to warrant recording. There had been one previous solo album for Riverside, 1957's Thelonious Himself, and there would be another in a few years, Solo Monk, for CBS in 1965. Both the Riverside sets are masterpieces, with Thelonious Alone In San Francisco by a whisker the strongest contender for desert island disc status. The album contains sparkling versions of six Monk originals and four standards. Of the originals, "Ruby, My Dear," "Pannonica" and "Reflections" are given profoundly thoughtful readings; of the standards, "Everything Happens To Me," "You Took The Words Right Out Of My Heart" and "There's Danger In Your Eyes, Cherie" are heard in typically inventive recalibrations. Two of the originals, "Blue Hawk" and "Round Lights," had not previously been recorded; neither are major Monk compositions, but provide platforms for top drawer blues improvisations.

If you only had a handful of Monk albums to take to a desert island, this would need to be one of them—along with Brilliant Corners and Genius Of Modern Music Volume 1 and Volume 2 (both Blue Note, 1947-52).

Tracks and Personnel

Something Else!!!!

Tracks: Invisible; The Blessing; Jayne; Chippie; Angel Voice; Alpha; When Will The Blues Leave?; The Sphinx.

Personnel: Ornette Coleman: alto saxophone; Don Cherry: trumpet; Walter Norris: piano; Don Payne: bass; Billy Higgins: drums.

Thelonious Alone In San Francisco

Tracks: Blue Monk; Ruby My Dear; Round Lights; Everything Happens To Me; You Took The Words Right Out Of My Heart; Bluehawk; Pannonica; Remember; There's Danger In Your Eyes Cherie; Reflections; There's Danger In Your Eyes Cherie (alt. take).

Personnel: Thelonious Monk: piano.

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