The music of Thelonious Monk is as fresh and, for many of us, as challenging as it was when it was first brought into the world, in the middle years of the last Century. Brilliant Corners, described by some as the album on which Monk broke through from relative obscurity, is a good place to start.
The jagged genius and complexity of the time signature changes of the first piece, which gives the set its title was such that it proved extremely difficult to capture. At a time when most jazz was recorded in a single take and often with minimal rehearsal, the track was only completed after 25 takes, two of which were spliced together to make up the finished piece. The sleeve notes, written by the producer, Orrin Keepnews tell us: “These men worked hard. They struggled and concentrated and shook their heads over some passages with those half-smiles that mean: ‘Hard? this is impossible!'”
Things get more straightforward after this. If you want to listen to the epitome of Jazz-blues look no further than Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are. The only pity is that Charlie Parker’s untimely demise meant that he wasn’t around to cut a version of this. There’s an extraordinary dialogue between Monk and Pettiford as his bass solo commences and leads into a brief visit to Roach on drums.
Pannonica was written for Monk’s soul mate and patron, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter who played a major part in encouraging the emerging New York Modern Jazz scene. Her story is a fascinating one. Monk plays celeste (with his right hand) and piano (left hand) on an exquisite piece. I’m not quite sure about the celeste or the main horn voicings but it is certainly a distinctive track which stands out.
I Surrender Dear is Monk delivering a piano solo version of a standard tune which was largely responsible for Bing Crosby coming to prominence in the early 1930’s. This track was recorded as a filler- with Monk playing a tune that he liked. Apparently he was recorded playing a half hour version of this while resident pianist at Minton’s in the 1940’s. He loved the recording so much that he wore it out by playing the master copy over and over, so much so that the quality had diminished to the extent that it was un-salvageable for public release. Ted Gioia rightly intimates that posterity can only rue the loss of an early performance by Monk that the man himself was mesmerised by.
Bemsha Swing is wonderful, drawing on the amazing skills of the full band and creating something ever vibrant, exciting and new. Max Roach’s kettle drums add greatly to this track. Incidentally, Ted Gioia says that ‘Bemsha’ is a nickname for Barbados and is probably explained by co-composer Denzil Best’s Barbadian roots. The track is reproduced here on YouTube courtesy of Master Exelpud:
This album was featured as Classic Album Sunday’s choice in London on 1st February 2015. The first two tracks were played from the rare Analogue Productions 45 rpm audiophille pressing on their muscular high-end system (boasting a huge Audio Note Jinro power amplifier and massive Klipschorn speakers you could make a small house out of). The sound was exceptional and I was particularly impressed on this snapshot, one-off listen by the way Sonny Rollins tenor and Oscar Pettiford’s bass were reproduced. The second side was brought to us via a white label UK test pressing and that had an altogether different quality. It sounded much more compressed and muddier over the same system. I was disappointed by Max Roach’s crucial kettle drum sound on Bemsha Swing on this pressing and the Analogue Productions version easily won this head to head, to my ears at least.
I enjoyed this ClassicAlbumSundays event, which featured a brief intro from Coleen of CAS and a short interview with the proprieter of Gearbox Records who are putting together a list of previously unreleased jazz performances which may soon be further strengthened by a previously unreleased Scandinavian recording of Monk. I’m not sure it added to my appreciation of this great record but I certainly appreciated the clash of the pressings. I reckon I could just about fit the Klipschorns into my parlour.
I’m not sure about the exact date of release in 1956 or 1957, although the final session date of 9 December 1956 suggests that, given production, mastering and pressing, an April 1957 date is the most plausible.
The band etc: Thelonious Monk (piano, celeste on Pannonica); Ernie Henry (alto sax on Brilliant Corners, Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are & Pannonica); Sonny Rolins (tenor sax); Oscar Pettiford (bass on Brilliant Corners, Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are & Pannonica); Max Roach (drums *timpani on Bemsha Swing); Clark Terry (trumpet on Bemsha Swing); Paul Chambers (bass on Bemsha Swing). Recorded: Oct 9 & 15 & December 7 1956. Produced: Orrin Keepnews & Bill Grauer. Studio: Reeves Sound Released: April 1957. Cover photo: Paul Weller. Sleeve notes: Orrin Keepnews. Riverside RLP 12 226.