MONK = The Complete Riverside Recordings – Thelonious Monk, piano/ Charlie Rouse, saxophone/ Art Blakey, drums/ John Coltrane, saxophone/ Sonny Rollins, saxophone/ Coleman Hawkins, saxophone/ Gerry Mulligan, saxophone & clarinet/ Max Roach, drums/ Clark Terry, trumpet/ Thad Jones, trumpet/ Johnny Griffin, saxophone/ Wilbur Ware, bass – Riverside 888072360020, About 16 hours – (Re-release from 1986; Distr. by Concord Music) (15-CD set) [5/18/15] *****
Before his final years recording for Columbia, Thelonious Monk produced these recordings for the small Riverside Records label. They are among the best work he’s ever done. It was here he honed his immortal compositions like “Epistrophy,” “Panonica,” “Straight No Chaser,” “Crepulsule with Nellie,” “Rhythm-a-Ning,” and a score of other tunes.
A founder of Riverside, Orrin Keepnews (1923-2015), produced this set in 1986. It won two GRAMMYs in 1987, one for Best Historical Album and the other for Best Album Notes. Frankly, I don’t understand how it received Best Album Notes, since what he wrote consists of dry recountings of who did what and when and some engineering notes, but virtually no discussion of Monk’s music. In Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Robin Kelley notices this about him as well.
But enough of that. What about the music? Well, you won’t want to lend out this set. Although the first seven discs are in mono, the entire set is worth owning forever. Not everything sounds great (some of the live material could have been tweaked more), but the quality of the music playing installs it permanently in the hallways of greatness. No details are provided on whether engineers Shinobu Kukumoto and Nobuhiro Iwama recently did their prestidigitation with the digital transfer from the 1986 material, or whether they did it only in 1986. No matter, it’s got some new stuff on it. It now includes a legendary abandoned session with timid drummer Shelly Manne, which Keepnews’s colleague hired in a rash moment. It’s fascinating to hear Monk (who had a cold) play a lackluster “‘Round Midnight.” Luckily there are other recordings here of this work (including a solo) that redeem this misfire. There are also several partial takes and some in-studio bantering, the kind that you hear on a Sony Legacy Recordings completist collection.
Sometimes Monk chose tunes that were part of his repertoire since the 40s. For example, in Discs 1 and 2, the uptempo “Liza” playfully engages him and drummer Art Blakey, whereas the medium-tempo “Just You, Just Me” is a lively conversation between Monk’s left and right hands. In “Darn That Dream” and “You are Too Beautiful,” Monk shows off his uniquely dissonant talent while still preserving these songs’ romanticism. On discs 4 & 5 there are engaging hard-swinging versions of the older tunes “Epistrophy” and “Off Minor,” but on “Well, You Needn’t,” with Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane on tenor sax and Blakey on drums, the soloists blaze like CGI meteorites in a sci-fi flick. Often when Monk got ahold of a standard, he put it through some surreal changes. On disc 6, “Sweet and Lovely” sounds like an expressionist painting would if it could slowly moan and tap-dance the walls at the same time. Monk’s descending chord patterns are swirls of contrasting color. On the same disc, “Coming on the Hudson” the chromatic harmonic progressions and odd rhythms make the piece sound like boats bobbing their way down that river.
So few people today mention this about Monk’s music, but it’s eminently danceable. While I was listening to this set, my wife couldn’t resist shaking & shimmying, even after doing her best Kristen Wiig (“Oh don’t make me dance!”). Playing live at the Blackhawk Club in the ‘50s, Monk knew this was expected and he rarely disappointed.
That doesn’t mean his playing doesn’t occasionally fall short of expectation. On disc 4, “Crepuscule with Nellie, take 6” his playing is halting and tentative, as if he’s trying something that’s not working out. Disc 10 is a mixed bag, as Keepnews overloads it with personnel, the over-orchestrated effect, outdated even then. “Little Rootie Tootie” is too raucous and has a recording mistake, so it had to be redone. “Monk’s Mood” plods along, and is actually a bit boring. But some pieces break free from their meanderings, like “Friday the 13th,” which quickly atones for its tedious opening riff.
So why did I award five stars to a set that has some misfires? It’s because with Thelonious Monk even the not-quites have some value. In the last thirty seconds of Disc 15’s “Bemsha Swing,” Charlie Rouse is playing dominant on tenor sax with Monk unobtrusively accompanying him in the background. Suddenly Monk echoes that melody, but slyly out of phase by a half-beat (not once but thrice). It happens so quickly that you blurt “WTF???” and reach for the remote. You weren’t listening and Thelonious just caught you.