Jazz CD Reviews

The Thelonious Monk Quartet: The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection – Thelonious Monk, Charlie Rouse, et al. – Sony Legacy (6 CDs)

One boxed set to never file away.

Published on August 12, 2012

The Thelonious Monk Quartet: The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection – Thelonious Monk, Charlie Rouse, et al. – Sony Legacy 88697957682 [6-CD set] – About 7 hours *****:

This superbly recorded and attractively packaged set of CDs is worth buying and then never filing away. Keep it nearby, in plain sight. When they were first released as LPs, engineers went tweak-crazy. They brightened the sound and compressed the dynamic range, allegedly to compensate for the limited stereo systems most people had. Early CD releases still retained the doctoring and sounded horrible. But those in this set are cut from the original tapes so they sound just right. In some early cuts, you can even hear the extreme stereo separation that was popular on Beatles’ and Herb Alpert albums, but that’s okay. It makes them feel authentic.

Three of the albums (Monk’s Dream, Straight No Chaser, and It’s Monk’s Time) appear on Best Ever Album lists, and for solid reasons. There are his best quartet performances with saxophonist Charlie Rouse, who understood where Monk was going nearly all the time, and anticipated it the rest of the time. One could argue that the best Thelonious Monk album is Brilliant Corners, the 1956 Carnegie Hall concert with John Coltrane, but you probably wouldn’t be comparing while listening to the version of “Pannonica” on Monk to the one on Brilliant Corners. Both are masterful. I’m no fan of carousel CD players, but this set may be the best use of one.

There has been a lot of debate about Sony’s decision to include multiple takes of songs on these Legacy sets. In her essay accompanying Charles Mingus’ Complete Albums Collection, Sue Mingus posits that her husband discarded his inferior takes for valid reasons and they should be left in the vaults. I see her point, but I’m not sure that it applies to Monk. How can you argue with more Monk? One of his “flaws”: He would often undertake brilliant saves when he hit a wrong note. Often how he accomplishes this feat is so transparent that it has to be spotted by comparison. There are a few such gaffs to be discovered in this collection, but you have to listen multiple times to pick them out. But in the case of Monk, pretty much anything you do would comprise a worse way to spend your evening.

The latest CD in the collection, Underground, hasn’t yet received the respect it truly deserves. While Monk’s pianistic antics are less whimsical and uninhibited on these cuts, the careful listener will uncover some tasty treats. “Raise Four” opens with an almost annoying ostinato that takes up the first minute, but the piece morphs into a prickly blues-tinged number. Both versions of “Ugly Beauty” gradually evolve into perambulating ballads that border on the atonal. I could have done without “In Walked Bud,” Monk’s tribute to Bud Powell. Scat legend Jon Hendricks sings his extemporaneous lyrics in a manner far inferior to his customary form.

These are essentially Monk’s last albums. After recording Underground in 1968, his output basically stopped. He appears on one live album from the ‘70s, The Giants of Jazz (Atlantic, 1971) with Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie, but it doesn’t really count because it contains only two of his pieces.

It’s hard to believe that there was once a time when Thelonious Monk’s music was considered “difficult.” In Germany he was once called “the greatest composer since Bartók,” which probably added to the myth. Having lived through progressive jazz’s many permutations in the Seventies (Don Cherry’s collaboration with Krzysztof Penderecki, Coltrane’s forays into arhythmic music, Ornette Coleman’s free funk), I find Monk’s tunes most like those cool zephyrs at Florida seaside restaurants at sunset. There is nothing difficult about sitting back and absorbing their structural intricacy and direct appeals to the senses.

TrackList =

Disc 1:

Monk’s Dream (Take 8)

Body And Soul

Bright Mississippi (Take 1)

Blues Five Spot * See All 4

Blue Bolivar Blues (Take 2)

Just A Gigolo * See All 4

Bye-Ya

Sweet And Lovely

Monk’s Dream (Take 3)

Body and Soul (Take 1)

Bright Mississippi (Take 3)

Blue Bolivar Blues (Take 1)

Disc 2:

Hackensack

Tea for Two

Criss Cross

Eronel

Rhythm-A-Ning

Don’t Blame Me (Retake 1)

Think of One

Crepuscule With Nellie

Pannonica

Coming on the Hudson

Tea For Two (Take 9)

Eronel (Take 3)

Disc 3:

Lulu’s Back in Town

Memories Of You

Stuffy Turkey

Brake’s Sake

Nice Work If You Can Get It (Take 3)

Shuffle Boil (Retake)

Epistrophy (Take 1)

Nice Work If You Can Get It (Take 2)

Shuffle Boil (Take 5)

Disc 4:

Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)

April in Paris (Take 6)

Children’s Song (That Old Man)

I Love You (Sweetheart of All My Dreams)

Just You, Just Me

Pannonica (Re-Take 2)

Teo

April In Paris (Take 1)

Pannonica (Take 2)

Just You, Just Me/Liza (All The Clouds’ll Roll Away)

Disc 5:

Locomotive

I Didn’t Know About You

Straight, No Chaser

Japanese Folk Song

Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea

We See

This Is My Story, This Is My Song

I Didn’t Know About You (take 1)

Green Chimneys

Disc 6:

Thelonious

Ugly Beauty

Raise Four

Boo Boo’s Birthday (Take 11)

Easy Street

Green Chimneys

In Walked Bud

Ugly Beauty (Take 4)

Boo Boo’s Birthday (Take 2)

Thelonious (Take 3)

—Peter Bates




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