From time to time it takes me an age to write a post. Monk’s Music is a recording that is too good to hurry over but equally two months between posts is too much of a gap to be happy with. I’ve many other things to write about (not in the least the copy of Monk’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses which I managed to purchase on Record Store Day UK 2017 and which I will write about very soon). So here goes with a look at a one of the great works from a musical genius.
Recorded sixty years ago this year (2017), in his own 40th year, Monk’s Music is a masterpiece. The album was the product of a landmark recording session for which Monk engaged that trailblazer of jazz saxophone, Coleman Hawkins, alongside John Coltrane who was in the midst of a crucial, transformative phase and was yet to emerge as one of the key figures of modern jazz.
Although 1957 was to be his finest year, things had started very badly for Monk. In his definitive biography, Robin D.G. Kelley explains that during the 1956 Christmas holiday period Monk was involved in a minor car crash in New York City. Although nobody was physically injured, the incident caused Monk to suffer a mental breakdown, reception into custody for his own safety and an immediate admission as an inpatient at New York’s notorious Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. He was resident for between two and three weeks before being discharged without a diagnosis.
The period in hospital sharpened his desire to work, earn some money and, crucially, to put together a sextet with three horns: “…the right amount of horns”, as he told Ira Gitler in mid-January 1957. First came a six-night engagement in Philadelphia, being driven back and forth from New York each night by his firm friend and supporter, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter.
Monk spent the next couple of months with his wife and children. He countered his depression with hours of practice on the fine Steinway baby grand piano that he had rented at the end of 1956 and shoe-horned into his apartment. When he was not at home he was at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street, where Pannonica had settled and held an open musical salon in her suite. It was during this period that Monk and Coltrane began to work closely together. Monk became the saxophonist’s mentor as Coltrane attempted to improve his musicianship while struggling to overcome his addiction to heroin. Surely at that stage, the two artists could not imagine the legacies that each would go on to leave for us?
Along the way, in mid-April, Monk recorded another of his key works, Thelonious Himself, largely a solo work but with Coltrane and bassist Wilbur Ware contributing to a version of Monk’s Mood. A couple of days later Coltrane was fired by Miles Davis, who exasperated by Coltrane’s playing in the midst of withdrawal, may also have slapped and punched his band member. Apparently, this was witnessed by Monk who tried, without success, to intercede before offering Coltrane a job.
Their live partnership could not begin immediately as Monk was still without an all-important New York Cabaret Card which prevented him from playing in NYC. His card had been cancelled following a drugs bust several years before but his manager was working hard to get him a new one.
Just before the Monk’s Music session, his wife was admitted to hospital for treatment of an acute thyroid condition and this caused Monk an overwhelming sense of distress. In keeping with the adage ‘every cloud…’, the silver lining that was his gift to posterity was the beautiful Crepuscule With Nellie, which we will get to in a while. This was the product of sleepless nights, countless revisions and Baroness Nica’s suggestion that Crepuscule (the late Middle English word for twilight) was a better and more evocative alternative to evening for the title.
The recording begins with a short yet exquisite arrangement of Abide With Me. The hymn, which has a particular resonance for anybody who has attended an FA Cup Final was written by Monk’s namesake, British organist, William Henry Monk and entitled Eventide. Indeed there is a possibility that Monk may have made a connection with his own Crepuscule. This gem is only 55 seconds long and leaves this listener wanting more but very pleased with what has been served up in a short span.
Next up, Well, You Needn’t, starts with a swing before Monk calls on John Coltrane who delivers and exceptional solo which must have sounded like something from the future when the recording was released. The take extends to just under eleven and a half minutes and all of the musicians have space to solo.
Amongst Monk’s finest ballads, the recording of Ruby, My Dear presents a beautiful dialogue between Monk’s piano and Coleman Hawkins’ mellifluous tenor. The Ruby in question was Ruby Richardson, a significant girlfriend from Monk’s teenage years, which is when he first wrote the tune.
Off Minor has a jagged beauty that is full of surprises and is played with what my lack of theoretical musicianship leads me to venture to describe as a staccato angularity. In his sleeve notes for the 2010 CD reissue, Ashley Kahn notes that Kelley states that the tune is in G minor but that it ‘…never resolves to the tonic.’ This probably explains why it leaves us expecting something extra. The version used on the original release was the 5th take and the CD provides the bonus of an alternative version, the 4th take, which features strong though slightly less fluent and ‘worked out’ tenor and trumpet solos from Coleman and Copeland. We are lucky to have both to listen to.
Epistrophy was written by Monk and drummer Kenny Clarke in the early 1940s and it was to remain as an often visited staple of Monk’s repertoire (with Ted Gioia recording in ‘The Jazz Standards’ that over 50 recordings of the tune by Monk are known to survive). On Monk’s Music the version is a seamless splice of two takes with solos from each of the musicians starting with a fluent opening statement from Coltrane, before working through Copeland, Gryce, Ware, Blakey, Hawkins and finally Monk. Hawkins’ solo draws on his tenor’s lower register and is particularly full-bodied and robust, before Monk plays briefly and then ushers in the ensemble with an insistent caterwaul.
The afore-mentioned Crepuscule with Nellie closes the original recording. Kelley explains that unique amongst his recordings, Monk always played this without improvisation or embellishment. It is rendered as though the distilled feelings that he was conveying were sacrosanct and deeply personal. You can listen courtesy of YouTube:-
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On the CD there is an extra alternate edited version, which amalgamated the best of the 4th and 5th takes and is a welcome addition. I would venture that it possibly wasn’t selected as the master take as Blakey’s brushwork sounds a little intrusive.
As mentioned, in the lead-up to the session Monk had several sleepless nights due to worries about the poor state of his wife’s health and his search for perfection in the composition of Crepuscule. On the first day Art Blakey was an hour late and then took a further hour to set up his drum kit. Although a couple of unused takes of Crepuscule were recorded, Monk was exhausted and went home to sleep, with nothing that was used in the can. With precious studio time remaining, the other musicians rapidly rehearsed and recorded an improvisation on a Count Basie influenced blues written on the spot by Gigi Gryce. Blues For Tomorrow was subsequently released on a compilation under Coleman Hawkins name. It is fascinating to compare Hawkins solo to Coltrane’s, which he follows on from. Once again, playing in the tenor’s lower register, it almost sounds (to these ears) as though Hawkins is playing a baritone sax and he really makes the piece his own.
Monk was back next day, rested and ready to go. It was his session and he pushed his sidemen to deliver exactly what he wanted. Gryce had been tasked with arranging the horn parts and there was a gap between what he had written and what Monk had asked for. Kelley memorably recounts Monk saying to Hawkins and Coltrane:-
“You’re the great Coleman Hawkins, right? You’re the guy who invented the tenor saxophone, right?” Hawk agreed. Then Monk said to Trane, “You’re the great John Coltrane, right?” Trane blushed, and mumbled, “Aw…I’m not so great.” Then Monk said to both of them, “You both play saxophone, right?” They nodded. “Well, the music is on the horn. Between the two of you, you should be able to find it.”
Find it, they all did and the entire issued album was taped on 26 June 1957
With the session in the bag, the producer, Orrin Keepnews and label boss Bill Grauer felt that they had captured something special. Cover art was conceived but Monk hated what was proposed and was angry with the designer. The original idea was to feature a photograph of him wearing a monk’s robe, standing in a pulpit and holding a glass of whisky but Monk rejected it out of hand. He went to another part of the studio where he rested on the photographer’s trolley. The unposed image was a striking one and surprisingly Monk was happy to be photographed, adding his briefcase, music paper and a pencil and explaining that he had previously composed while sitting outside his home on his child’s wagon.
Monk got his cabaret card back in May 1957 and was booked into New York’s Five Spot venue from 4th July for what turned into a 6 month residency. He was able to honour his commitment to John Coltrane who joined him on the stage from Tuesday 16 July 1957. The classic album that is Monk’s Music was released in early 1958 and acclaimed as one of the year’s top five albums by Downbeat. I cannot recommend that you listen to it too highly. The session that produced Monk’s Music is exceptional so don’t miss the version supplemented by the additional tracks on CD.
Robin D.G. Kelley’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original was first published by Free Press (New York) in 2009. I am grateful to have benefitted from Kelley’s scholarship and insights and commend it as an essential purchase and great read for those who are interested in Monk.
The band etc: Thelonious Monk (piano); Ray Copeland (trumpet); Gigi Gryce (alto sax); John Coltrane (tenor sax); Coleman Hawkins (tenor sax); Wilbur Ware (bass); Art Blakey (drums ). Recorded: June 26 1957 (Blues For Tomorrow 25.06.57). Produced: Orrin Keepnews. Studio: Reeves Sound, New York City. Released: 1958. Cover photo: Paul Weller. Sleeve notes: Orrin Keepnews. Riverside RLP 12 242. Additional sleeve notes on CD release: Ashley Kahn 2010.
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