Reader, I have a confession. This started out as a review of Thelonious Monk Live At The It Club (in Los Angeles 1964) but ended up as a look at the Carnegie Hall Concert (November 1957), via a visit to The Five Spot in New York City (August 1958). There is an explanation. Firstly, although it is an excellent recording featuring a great performance by Monk, a review of The It Club set is a daunting prospect. The Colombia double CD runs to over 150 minutes and contains 19 separate compositions. I did think about writing about it over two or three posts but, somehow that didn’t seem satisfactory. Secondly, I came to realise the significance of a short period during an amazing year for two of the all time greats (if not the greatest). Thirdly, I wanted to write about the Carnegie Hall Concert, with its tale of the re-discovery of a lost treasure of incalculable value. So here we go.
At the end of November 1957, Monk was invited to play in two performances of a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall to raise funds for the Morningside Community Center in Harlem. The prospect of making a contribution to this local social action centre appealed to him because as a young person he had spent most of his free time at a youth centre across the road from his family home in Midtown New York. The rest of the bill was stellar and included Billie Holliday, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Zoot Simms and Sonny Rollins. Ray Charles headlined with a jazz set. Two dollars, or $3.95 for the best seats and you were in.
In the four months before the concert, John Coltrane had been playing as part of Monk’s quartet at the Five Spot. This was the year in which Coltrane’s talents flowered. He had kicked heroin after being fired by Miles Davis in April 1957 and spent a great deal of time at Monk’s apartment, learning from the older master-musician. The superb and informative booklet which accompanies the CD release records Coltrane as saying:-
“I’d go by his apartment and get him out of bed (laughs). He’d wake up and roll over to the piano and start playing… He would stop and show me some parts that were pretty difficult, and if I had a lot of trouble, well, he’d get his portfolio out and show me the music…sometimes, we’d get through just one tune a day. Maybe.”
In ’57 Monk also had much to celebrate. Brilliant Corners had been released and earlier work on Blue Note and Riverside was re-released on the new 12″ long playing LPs. He had regained his Cabaret Card in May 1957 and was once again able to play in New York clubs that served alcohol. In July, he obtained a residency at The Five Spot, a small bar on the edge of The Bowery and on Tuesday July 16, he was joined by John Coltrane. The original piano was inadequate and in very poor repair but with an eye to the crowds lining up outside every night the club owner rapidly agreed to allow Monk to source a Baldwin baby grand.
The night at Carnegie Hall gave Monk the opportunity to perform in public on one of renowned venue’s concert grands. Monk’s Mood features a pianist taking great delight in the tone of an excellent piano and the fine acoustics of the hall (although he also had access to two baby grand Steinway pianos: his own rented instrument and one owned by his friend Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter). John Coltrane also approaches this beautiful ballad, that he made great efforts to learn and interpret, with great sensitivity, while Shadow Wilson’s drumming is sparse and complements the two soloists.
Evidence is angular and almost jagged with Monk giving Coltrane the space to develop a solo that contains fast phrases reminiscent of his work on the recently recorded Blue Train.
Crepuscule With Nellie had been written in the early summer of 1957 at a time when Monk’s beloved wife was facing a major thyroid operation. Monk laboured long and hard to produce music which captured his feelings and sought perfection in a piece that he usually played without improvisation or embellishment (on this version there is a brief reference to the ’52nd Street Theme’ just after Coltrane starts to play). ‘Crepuscule’ sounds like some type of seafood but it actually means ‘twilight’ and it was suggested that Monk should consider using the French word by his friend the Baroness.
This is followed by a jaunty version of Nutty, which features some fine percussion and great fluency from Coltrane.
Epistrophy is complex with some fine cymbal work. The quartet is really tight and this is superlative musicianship.
I understand that the final four tracks were recorded during the second set of the evening.
Bye-Ya is another vehicle for John Coltrane to shine on, although there is a short solo from Monk before the band moves straight into Sweet And Lovely, the standard favoured and recorded regularly by Monk.
Blue Monk is taken at a brisk pace. This tune is a classic which has become a staple of the young jazz musician’s repertoire, which means that it is regularly put through the mangle. I recently heard a sax player in a local pub who should never play this again until he can aspire to get within a million miles of how Coltrane plays here (not playing flat would be a start). You can listen courtesy of Praguedive on Youtube by touching or clicking on the arrow below:-
Finally a second truncated reprise of Epistrophy from the second set closes the recording.
Although Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane worked together during an intense period of about six months, very little was recorded by the great quartet. There were three studio tracks and a further live recording made by Coltrane’s first wife on a portable tape machine. There was an awareness that the Carnegie Hall concerts had been recorded by Voice of America and Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter had made enquiries at the Library of Congress, which was believed to be where they had been consigned to, but the tapes were lost. Then, in February 2005, Larry Appelbaum, a recording lab supervisor, found several tapes labelled ‘Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957’ and one had a box with a note labelled T Monk. A treasure had been discovered and within six months this resulting album was released. It is available on vinyl- with the Mosaic recording being the one to seek out. However, I’m delighted with the CD which comes complete with a brilliant booklet. This is a recording that I recommend without reservation and which I hope you will enjoy. Happy listening.
The band etc: Thelonious Monk (piano); John Coltrane (tenor sax); Ahmed Abdul-Malik (bass); Shadow Wilson (drums). Recorded: 29 November 1957. Produced for release: T.S. Monk and Michael Cuscuna. Cover illustration: Felix Sockwell. Sleeve notes: Amiri Baraka; Ira Gitler; Ashley Kahn; Stanley Crouch; Robin D.G. Kelley; Lewis Porter and Larry Appelbaum. Released as Blue Note 35173 on September 27, 2005.