One fundamental paradox of compilation albums is the way so many good ones ultimately render themselves useless. Consider how many hits packages sit untouched on the shelves of aficionados, doomed to a lifetime of neglect simply for having the gall to work efficiently as the conversion tools they were intended to be. Consequently, a great compilation requires a functionality beyond simply being a commercially-endorsed mix CD. The Definitive Thelonious Monk on Prestige and Riverside spans the great pianist/composer's most revered era (1952-1960), and appears outwardly as nothing special: It unearths nothing unfamiliar, runs in obvious chronological order, and culls almost strictly from records that are worth owning in full. However, this collection illustrates contrasts that the LP's don't; in a micro sense, it's absolutely worthy of its title.
For example, the same recording of "Caravan" which felt stiff and tentative capping off 1955's uncharacteristically reverent Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington feels light and airy here, a rest stop on the road from the reflective nine-plus minute "Bemsha Swing" (from Miles Davis' 1954 Modern Jazz Giants session) to 1956's mathematically impossible "Brilliant Corners." These little disparities butt heads everywherefrom his smallest format (solo readings of "'Round Midnight" and "Ruby, My Dear") to his largest ("Little Rootie Tootie" from 1959's gargantuan Town Hall Orchestra date), his best-traveled vintages (a 1957 septet take on "Well, You Needn't") to his most impulsive sounds (the celeste/piano standoff on "Pannonica"), this is T.S. Monk at his broadest and most articulate.
Throughout, the leader employs the stable of tenor men he helped make famous: A barely-drinking age Sonny Rollins (whose soloing on 1954's "I Want to Be Happy" seems particularly attuned to just that); a John Coltrane on the cusp of turning his harmonic vocabulary into an entirely new language; the wickedly funny Johnny Griffin (who joyously drops a few licks from "Surrey With the Fringe On Top" into "Nutty" from 1958's Misterioso); and the stoic Charlie Rouse, who uses "Straight, No Chaser" to test his mettle as wing man for the victory lap that Monk would take for Columbia in the 1960s.
Each uniquely personal style coalesces atop Monk's piano, which is so unmistakable that it's incapable of going rogue even when it tries. These are his beloved quirksthe bouncy lines that threaten fluidity before crashing into brick walls of dissonant chords; the spaces between notes which the pianist adopts as his mental workspace; the solos too shrewd to disregard the heads that weren't being played straight to begin with. On this foundation, the whole collection unfolds as a kind of commemorative murala celebration of an American original whose songbook and style are as immortal as they are inimitable. You may snag this collection as a novice, and ten years from now you may find yourself writing a reference book on Monk bootlegs. But don't be surprised if this is the disc you catch yourself reaching for even then.
CD1: Bye-Ya; We See; Blue Monk; I Want to Be Happy; Bemsha Swing; Caravan; Tea For Two; Pannonica; Brilliant Corners; 'Round Midnight. CD2: Well, You Needn't; Off Minor (Take 5); Epistrophy; Trinkle, Tinkle; Rhythm-a-ning; Evidence; Nutty; Little Rootie Tootie; Straight, No Chaser; Ruby, My Dear; Four in One (Take 2).
Thelonious Monk: piano; Gary Mapp: bass (CD1#2); Art Blakey: drums (CD1#1-3, CD1#7, CD#1-3), Ray Copeland: trumpet (CD1#2, CD2#1); Frank Foster: tenor saxophone (CD1#2), Curly Russell: bass (CD1#2); Sonny Rollins: tenor saxophone (CD1#4, CD1#8,-9); Tommy Potter: bass (CD1#4); Art Taylor: drums (CD1#4, CD2#8-9); Miles Davis: trumpet (CD1#5); Milt Jackson: vibes (CD1#5); Percy Heath: bass (CD1#5); Kenny Clarke: drums (CD1#5-6); Oscar Pettiford: bass (CD1#6- 9); Ernie Henry: alto saxophone (CD1#8-9); Max Roach: drums (CD1#8-9); Gigi Gryce: alto saxophone (CD2#1-3); John Coltrane: tenor saxophone (CD2#1- 4); Coleman Hawkins: tenor saxophone (CD2#1-3); Wilbur Ware: bass (CD2#1-5); Shadow Wilson: drums (CD2#4-5); Gerry Mulligan: baritone saxophone (CD2#5); Johnny Griffin: tenor saxophone (CD2#6-7); Ahmed Abdul-Malik: bass (CD2#6-7); Roy Haynes: drums (CD2#6-7); Jay McAllister: tuba (CD2#8); Robert Northern: French horn (CD2#8); Eddie Bert: trombone (CD2#8); Donald Byrd: trumpet (CD2#8); Pepper Adams: baritone saxophone (CD2#8); Charlie Rouse: tenor saxophone (CD2#8-9, CD2#11); Phil Woods: alto saxophone (CD2#8); Sam Jones: bass (CD2#8); Thad Jones: cornet (CD2#9); Joe Gordon: trumpet (CD2#11); John Ore: bass (CD2#11); Billy Higgins: drums (CD2#11).
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