Having told the story of how this fine Monk box set came my way, with only minimal embellishment (I didn’t actually see anybody buy the Diana Ross album), it is time to get down to business and write about how the recording came to be made and to express an opinion on the music and the overall package.
At the end of May 1954 Thelonious Monk, travelling alone, crossed the Atlantic, landing in Paris, where he had been booked to play in the ‘Salon du Jazz’ Festival. Kelley* records how Monk had been a Francophile since he studied French as a teenager and this was his first visit to a city that had loomed large in his imagination since those days.
The concerts were of mixed quality, partly due to the lack of familiarity with his work and performance expectations by local accompanists. However, the short Parisian sojourn, during which he first encountered and hung out with his great friend Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, also indirectly led to his involvement with the soundtrack for ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’.
Like so many visitors, Monk spent hours exploring the streets of the city on foot. He was accompanied by a local jazz fan, Marcel Romano who also enjoyed a good walk and who showed him around. He even catered for Monk’s niche interests and took him to a celebrated Parisian milliners where the hat-lover purchased a number of authentic Basque berets. Subsequently, Romano’s love for the music led to him rapidly becoming an influential figure in the French jazz world and five years later he had been engaged as musical director for Roger Vadim’s film of ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’.
Despite the friendship between Monk and Romano the realisation of the recording involved a tortuous and convoluted struggle to get Monk to contract to the project. Following the cancellation of a soundtrack recording session in Paris in the spring of 1959, Romano travelled to New York to try to make progress ahead of a deadline of 31 July.
In the sumptuous and informative 52 page booklet which accompanies the recording, Kelley explains that Monk suffered mental trauma at the end of April 1959 which led to his admission to a psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts where he was first given the anti-psychotic medication Thorazine (chlorpromazine), the start of a fifteen year period during which the powerful anti-depressant with multiple side-effects was proscribed to him. This and other distressing circumstances, outlined with understanding and eloquence by Kelley, reduced his capacity to focus on the soundtrack. Kelley also states that Monk knew that he had been cheated out of the fruits of his labours on many previous occasions and by 1959 he only really trusted his wife Nellie and his great friend and supporter Baroness Nica.
As the deadline loomed Romano through amazing persistence finally got Monk to sign the contract at dawn on 26 July and on 27 July the recording session took place.
Monk had not given himself enough time to compose any substantial bespoke pieces and so the recording session mainly draws on songs from his existing repertoire.
The set opens with a lively version of Rhythm-a-ning that contains a particularly good piano solo from Monk. Although he first recorded the tune in 1957 on an art Blakey led session, Monk had been playing the tune, based on the I Got Rhythm chord changes since his early 1940’s days in New York.
As was his habit, Crepuscule With Nellie is played note for note as a recital piece although Brian Priestly highlights some improvisation contained within the ‘pianistic textures used’ in the two versions committed to this soundtrack.
Six in One is a very fine and sensitive ballad played on solo piano by Monk. A quick look though one of the more detailed discographies indicates that this is the first release of the track under this name (although if any readers know more, please tell us). A treasure, which was not used for the final cut of the film.
The first version of Well, You Needn’t brings the band back and a fine tenor solo from Charlie Rouse explodes from the left hand channel. It echoes the impact of John Coltrane’s solo from the version that appeared on Monk’s Music but isn’t as strong.
Side Two starts with three takes of Pannonica, the first two solo and the third a quartet version with Charlie Rouse on tenor. There’s something joyous and almost playful about Monk’s piano on this version.
Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are features the full quintet with saxophone solos, first a relatively restrained effort from Rouse and then a confident 22 year old Frenchman, Wilen who acquits himself very well in such esteemed company.
Light Blue is let down by a leaden drum pattern which is too much to the fore (we’ll encounter Monk’s efforts to enable Art Taylor to get it right on Side Four).
By and By (We’ll Understand It Better By and By) is a traditional gospel hymn, which is largely solo and delightful but somewhat short.
Side Three opens up with a further visit to Rhythm-a-ning, edited from an incomplete take. The horns sound great here.
The first take of Crepuscule with Nellie follows. This involves a trio of Monk, Rouse and Taylor with Rouse lightly mirroring Monk and Taylor offering some very muted brushwork.
An alternate quintet take on Pannonica follows with bass and drums playing a slightly different accompaniment.
A further quartet version of Light Blue, with Wilen sitting out, closes the side. The drums are slightly more restrained and played with a lighter touch here making it the better of the two versions, in my opinion.
Side Four presents an unedited the perfectly enjoyable take on Well, You Needn’t. It also includes over 14 minutes tracing the making of Light Blue which largely involves a tedious rehearsal of the drum pattern and which is likely to be of only of the most marginal interest to most listeners, except for the last couple of minutes when things start to come together.
The current release can be considered as being made up of three segments. Sides One and Two are made up of selections that appeared on an edited tape annotated by Romano and containing the titles heard in the film with the addition of Six in One. The Second disc comprises alternative takes that were rejected for inclusion on the soundtrack and a third element which is a final long track on Side Four which captures the tortuous gestation of the drum phrase for Light Blue. This shows that while Monk knew what he wanted, Taylor was struggling to capture his wishes.
The soundtrack was never released as an album, probably for copyright and contractual reasons. Indeed the tapes were lost, only to be found amongst the late Marcel Romano’s archives in early 2014. In the words of the producers, Feldman, Xuan and Thomas who played the tapes labeled Thelonious Monk: ‘The most beautiful findings are often made by accident.’
I’m most definitely of the camp which believes that the world cannot have enough quality recordings made by Monk and I am delighted to have obtained a copy. However, it is an album that is a wonderful addition to the recorded works and certainly not a substitute for Brilliant Corners and Monk’s Music which contain the best known examples of most of the tracks found on the Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 soundtrack. If you are interested in Monk’s work then you really should seek this out to listen to and I also commend Kelley’s book which is referenced below.
The Vadim film is readily available and although I cannot recall having seen it I will endeavor to do so before the end of the year. I may even include a postscript when I do so.
The overall package is an item to treasure and the sound quality for this stereo release ia excellent through my Rega RP6/Naim Uniti 2/Spendor SP2 system. Once again, I’m delighted that I obtained a copy.
The band etc: Thelonious Monk (piano); Charlie Rouse (tenor sax); Barney Wilen (tenor sax); Sam Jones (bass); Art Taylor (drums ). Recorded: July 27 1959. Session Engineer: Tom Nola. Record Produced: Zev Feldman, Francois Le Xuan & Fred Thomas. Studio: Nola Penthouse Sound Studios, 111 W 57th Street, New York City. Released: 22 April 2017. Cover photo: Arnaud Boubet. Booklet notes and essays: Zev Feldman; Laurent Guenoun; Alain Tercinet; Robin D.G. Kelley; Brian Priestly. Sam Records / Saga.
*Robin D.G. Kelley’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original: Free Press (New York) 2009.