Produced by Orrin Keepnews
Recorded in New York, USA, on 12 and 16 April, 1957.
Riverside Records/Original Jazz Classics/Prestige OJCCD-254-2 (RLP-235)
Tracks at end of review.
Full upfront disclosure: I am a Monk completist, as I reckon he composed
and played some of the greatest music ever.
That now said, this recording is one of the hardest to love on his shelf.
It may be among the last recommendations any jazz lover still unfamiliar
with the great Thelonious Monk should get. Although the album overall has
the laconic feel of a pianist trying out a few tunes at his instrument,
there is something stark, forbidding, even headstrong about the playing;
the music makes no effort to endear itself. After several tracks, it may be
easier to take a break and return to it than to persist to the end.
This 1957 recording is one of only three albums where Monk is on piano
solo. The others are "Thelonious Alone in San Francisco" (Prestige: October
'59), and "Solo Monk" (Columbia: 1964-65). Several critics regard this
earliest outing as the best.
The only let-up from Thelonious's solitude at the keyboard comes at the
very end, in “Monk's Mood”—a track where he is joined by none other than
John Coltrane, with Wilbur Ware on bass, after minute 2:46. It is a
languid, near-8-minute-long track that, without a drummer, keeps to the
album's stark feel. It harks to sessions from their trailblazing album,
"Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane," recorded April to July 1957.
That historic studio release was followed by the two jazz giants’
collaboration on an unplanned pair of live albums: the poor-yet-worthy
bootleg "Live at the Five Spot Discovery!" (summer '57) and "Thelonious
Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall." This last dates to
November '57, and was an unexpected 2005 rediscovery—which, quite apart
from being in excellent sound, is easily one of the great musical finds
Be all this as it may, the present album is 100% pure Monk, so completely
engaging if you do not tire of the solo-piano sound—which, as any Monkphile
knows, is quite deliberately never smooth, and then some. Any efforts at
such smoothing are usually left to Monk’s backup players in trios,
especially saxophone accompanists in quartets, and by instrumental
ensembles in his quintets, septets, nonets, and, rarest of all, larger
bands. This release is also fairly unusual for including several standards
by others, while most Monk albums almost exclusively feature his own
Thelonious Monk is a curious case of a musician without easily discernible
developmental phases. His playing can be introverted and on some records
more exuberant, but it is not easy to divide his music into the usual
chronological phases. Monk re-recorded his own songs numerous times—far,
far more than most jazz composers—but he rewards attentive listening for
never playing any in the same way twice.
Still, his voice developed early and changed little over the rest of his
career—which spanned from the 1940s until his fairly sudden retirement in
1973. As shown in the 1988 documentary “Straight, No Chaser,” produced by
Clint Eastwood, Monk suffered from bouts of mental illness. In addition, he
was only marginally articulate and was deeply dependent on others—certainly
during his later years. He made a few appearances in the mid-70s, but the
rest of his life was spent in near-seclusion.
"I’m getting Sentimental Over You" is a standard made famous by the Tommy
Dorsey Orchestra in 1935. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass blew away my
attention with their slick version on the 1965 “!!Going Places!!” album.
Monk's treatment is a far drier affair, and in many ways its diametric
opposite. Still, it is nowhere as introspective as the rest of this album’s
music, and may thereby provide a doorway to anyone puzzled by Monk’s quirky
musical language, especially to grasp the liberties he takes with tempo and
“Functional” is another intriguing number on this disc for being a
seldom-recorded Monk tune that gets a well-rounded treatment. This includes
rhythmic passages showing stride elements amid his more pensive,
hiccupping, stop-and-start, sometimes amusingly hesitant articulations.
There are rich but subtle treats of one kind or another throughout this
album, which may well be characterized as Monk at his most introspective.
The 22-minute “Round Midnight” is of particular interest, since it involves
a variety of treatments of the tune, as it is protracted, and as Monk’s
playing makes no effort at zip. My guess is that it may challenge even Monk
enthusiasts who do not happen to be delighting in a single malt after hours
in some smoky room, ideally in solitude. The producer, Orrin Keepnews,
added to the liner notes a special remark about this track, essentially
that it was Monk's series of attempts to find just the right shape for the
tune, which O.K. later reassembled into one long sequence. At 12½ minutes
we hear some dialogue with the recording booth staff, as at 15:22 and
Just as Monk never played any of his music the same way twice, here Monk
elaborates on “Round Midnight” in a profusion of ways. Yet all the playing,
in short, seemed to Keepnews to be worthy of release. You decide.
For those new to Monk, easier points of entry might be the albums “Monk's
Music,” a 1957 septet album with Coleman Hawkins, Gigi Gryce and John
Coltrane on saxes, Wilbur Ware on bass, Ray Copeland on trumpet, and Art
Blakey on drums; or “Monk's Dream” with his 1963 ‘classic’ quartet, with
Charlie Rouse on sax.
Then again, as with any master composer, one would be hard-pressed to find
a genuine dud anywhere in Monk’s output.
To be clear: none of the music on this album is poorly played, and all of
it has the unique Monkish stamp deep in its core—which for seasoned Monk
devotees in the right circumstances can be sheer heaven, and our reason for
Although hard to love, for Monk admirers "Thelonious Himself" is soulful
and engaging and absolutely essential.
1 April in Paris (Harburg-Duke) 3:50
2 (I Don't Stand) A Ghost of a Chance (With You) (Crosby-Washington-Young)
3 Functional (Thelonious Monk) 9:19
4 I'm Getting Sentimental Over You (Washington-Bassman) 4:03
5 I Should Care (Cahn-Weston-Stordahl) 3:11
6 'Round Midnight (in progress) (B. Hanighen/T. Monk/C. Williams) 21:51
7 ‘Round Midnight (6:40)
8 All Alone (Irving Berlin) 4:50
9 Monk's Mood (Thelonious Monk) 7:53