All of a sudden! Unexpected news about a long-dead, favourite artist. Never before released on record, a complete studio session recorded for the soundtrack of a little-known French film is coming out as a limited edition. The initial release on vinyl will only stretch to 5000 copies worldwide and perhaps one of them may be available close to home. The catch is that the release is one of numerous special treats being made available to lovers of popular music on Record Store Day 2017. For sale from shop opening time on 22 April, on a first-come first-served basis, there can be no pre-orders and whether it can be obtained will depend on if it has been ordered and supplied locally. Of course, with that bridge crossed, there is also the nagging worry that somebody further up infront will be wanting a copy and will benefit from the civilised democracy of the queue.
So I joined the line outside Casbah Records in Greenwich, one of my local independent record shops.
The staff in Casbah are friendly and helpful. Whenever I drop in they always have a selection of new items that catch the eye, even though they are not usually from a musical genre that I listen to. Shops like Casbah are important and they add variety amidst the seas of conformity.
I took my cursory photo of the queue and waited for opening time. Unlike some shops which opened just after the stroke of midnight Casbah was far more relaxed with a very liberal start at 10.30am.
Chatting to two queue neighbours, I discovered that both were keen vinylistas. Both were a little cagey about their objects of desire but from what they were saying I guessed that they were unlikely to be after what I was on a mission to find.
The appointed time came and the queue moved slowly forward. After about 30 minutes we reached the threshold. I saw the Monk box set that I was hoping to buy on the wall. Good, I was close and in with a chance.
Then a woman ten places in front of me and holding a clutch of other albums asked for it to be taken down and handed to her. I had come so near to success only to have my hopes dashed in a cruel way!
She added it to her pile, as I tried to convince myself that whilst it was not to be, at least I had come close.
But it was to be! The would be purchaser cast an eye over her hoard before deciding that the copy of Les Liaisons Dangereuses was one item too many. I watched in anticipation as she passed it back to the assistant. The odds were that I was going to be successful.
The next few customers had other discs in mind and records by Bowie, The Grateful Dead, Diana Ross and The Doors were selected. It was my lucky day and within two minutes the record was bagged up and copy number 422/5000 was under my arm. I was pleased to witness the excitement of my queue-mates as they also made purchases and I wished them well as I left the shop.
Now here at downwithit.info we are firmly of the opinion that the best thing to do with jazz is to enjoy it. I’ve played both discs through it their entirety three times and I’m loving what I hear. I’ll write more here in Part Two, within the next few days, after a few more plays and close listens.
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:-
To play: touch or click on the arrow
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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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.
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.