Thelonious Monk: Brilliant Corners & At Town Hall


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Thelonious Monk

Brilliant Corners (Keepnews Collection)


Thelonious Monk

At Town Hall (Keepnews Collection)



It's time for some revisionist thinking on Monk's discography. Pride of place always seems to go to the earliest recordings when, undeniably, Monk debuted much of what was to be his small but indelible oeuvre. But were they really Monk's best records? Some tunes sounded rushed as the takes were short (still aimed at a singles market) and often weren't fully realized. A much better case can be made for Monk's Riverside albums as the pinnacle of his recorded legacy. And these two albums are cornerstones of that work.

Brilliant Corners was the first truly Monk-ian Monk LP from Riverside, as the label had debuted Monk in two piano trio albums, one of Duke Ellington tunes, the other of standards. Here Monk was given the opportunity to do his own compositions and he maximized the occasion by coming up with three new ones, as well as a novel take on an older one—all taking advantage of the expanded time available on LPs. (A piano solo rendition of "I Surrender Dear," one of Monk's first completely solo recordings, rounds out the album). The title track is one of those challenging (structurally and harmonically) Monk tunes further exacerbated by alternating slow-fast tempos with each chorus. Making it more singular still is the deep eructation of the saxophones (Sonny Rollins on tenor and Ernie Henry on alto) on the opening theme. And Henry's solo is so raw and wrenching a wail at times that it foreshadows Albert Ayler. With Max Roach (drums) and Oscar Pettiford (bass), this is one of Monk's best units and they deliver debuts of two dedications to the jazz patroness Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. "Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are" (she lived at the Bolivar) is a typically quirky blues with long solos—all shepherded by Monk's strong comping. "Pannonica," a serpentine ballad, is made doubly unique for Monk's use of a celeste (found in the studio) in the theme. The other studio find, tympani, gives extra clout to "Bemsha Swing," which also has Clark Terry's trumpet replacing Henry and Paul Chambers in for Pettiford.

Orchestral jazz was not unusual in the late '50s, but much of it was found only on albums recorded in studios. So Monk's At Town Hall concert on Feb. 28th, 1959, was a rare and singular event that had those who had been seeing his quartet in clubs salivating. We (I was lucky to have been there) weren't disappointed. And Riverside was there, issuing an LP recording of the six orchestral pieces on the program. This Keepnews Collection CD includes those six tracks plus the rest of the concert: three quartet tracks and an encore repeat of "Little Rootie Tootie." The orchestra was actually a tentet close to the format of Miles' Birth of the Cool sessions, with a tuba, French horn, trombone, trumpet, baritone, tenor and alto saxophones, bass, drums and Monk's piano. Hall Overton's arrangements/ orchestrations—done in close collaboration with Monk—are a visceral extension of his conception, expanding on his small group voicings with startling sonorities. "Little Rootie Tootie" also includes orchestrated bits of Monk's recorded solos. Other Monk tunes are revisited and expanded with cogent solos from altoist Phil Woods and trumpeter Donald Byrd as well as emphatic, glistening solos from Monk, who was obviously delighted with the orchestra (he even talked to the audience, a decidedly rare occurrence). In fact it is Monk's playing on these Riversides, as much as anything else, that makes them stand at the pinnacle of his recorded achievements.

Tracks and Personnel

Brilliant Corners (Keepnews Collection)

Tracks: Brilliant Corners; Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are; Pannonica; I Surrender, Dear; Bemsha Swing; Pannonica (incomplete—opening chorus only).

Personnel: Thelonious Monk: piano; Sonny Rollins, Ernie Henry: saxophones; Oscar Pettiford or Paul Chambers: bass; Max Roach: drums; Clark Terry: trumpet.

At Town Hall (Keepnews Collection)

Tracks: Thelonious (complete version); Friday The 13th; Monk's Mood; Little Rootie Tootie; Off Minor; Crepuscule With Nellie; Little Rootie Tootie (encore); In Walked Bud; Blue Monk; Rhythm-A-Ning.

Personnel: Donald Byrd: trumpet; Eddie Bert: trombone; Bob Northern: French horn; Jay McAllister: tuba; Phil Woods, Charlie Rouse, Pepper Adams: saxophones; Thelonious Monk: piano; Sam Jones: bass; Art Taylor: drums.


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