Thelonious ‘Sphere’ Monk (1917-82) is a giant of modern music. He is a spontaneous performer and as a composer, after Duke Ellington, the biggest name in jazz; a poet and a madman, so untouchable, so elusive and so unique. Unrecognized in his lifetime and torn between the critical denial of jazz writers, a jail term, his strange behavior -- described by some people as a mental disorder – and finally a long silence before his death (not a single record in 10 years!) “A Monk performance was always an adventure,” says a critic about him and that’s the truth about every single track in his rich catalog of recordings.
Monk’s unique style was compounded of Harlem’s masters of stride piano (listen to Monk’s latter treatment of ‘Nice work if you can get it’ to get what I mean), Edward Kennedy Ellington (who wasn’t influenced by Duke?), Teddy Wilson and of course, The Blues.
I’ll try to arrange a recording guide for those who want to explore the musical life of Thelonious Monk. The discographies will be based on CD releases and as much as possible, still-in-circulation ones. One of my main aims, besides introducing his best recording sessions and key albums, is saving you from multiple sessions released commercially with different titles.
1 Minton’s Days (1940-45)
This revolutionary period of music, a round-up of jazz giants in New York City’s Minton’s Café, later known as ‘bebop’ movement, was a doomed one, too. Due to strike of ‘American Federation of Musicians’, there isn’t any official recording from that time and there are only a few low quality private recordings that have opened their way into collector’s archives.
Monk’s role in those sessions was probably more than anybody else; after all he was the house pianist and arranger of the new materials that was coming from everywhere. It was his harmonic variations that fueled the bop revolution. All cats, from Coleman Hawkins to Don Byas, were there. Charlie Christian on guitar was a min force. The drummer of the sessions was Kenny ‘Klook’ Clarke. After hours, when the whole town was asleep, Roy Eldridge, Hot ‘Lips’ Page and Dizzy Gilespie, with their fiery trumpets and free from commercial gigs were the regular guests of the café.
Monk,Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge and Teddy Hill at Minton's 1948.
The only record left from Minton’s, under the Monk’s own name is After Hours at Minton’s, recorded in 1943 and issued by obscure “DefinitiveClassics” label. The line up consists of Eldridge (tp), page (tp), Herbie Fields (ts), Al Sears (ts), Christian (g), Nick Fenton (b), and Clarke (d).
Only for completation of this period, there are four tracks from Monk in Coleman Hawkins’ Bean and the Boys (Prestige PR 7824) recorded October 19, 1944 in New York City and a live recording with Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra in Spotlite club,1946, issued under the title, Dizzy Gillespie '46 Live At The Spotlite
2 Establishing the Giant: Blue Note recordings
By 1947 Monk was 30 years old and ready to place himself in the pantheon of the masters of modern music of 20th century. In prospect he was the real genius of modern music, right after Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington.
In October 15, 1947 he went to WOR Studios in New York to record his first album. That day he did 4 tracks with a sextet, all his own compositions. A week later the session continued with a trio and this time his interpretations of popular themes and standards of jazz were added to the repertoire. Later on he went back to studio with a Quintet. The Blue Note’s stirring sessions ended up in early 1950s with some of the most effective sessios, a quartet with vibraphonist Milt Jackson and finally his 1950 sextet with Lou Donald, Kenny Dorham, Lucky Thompson and drummer Max Roach.
The Complete Blue Note recordings gathers all the things he has recorded from 1947 to 1952 (plus a 1958 BN date with Coltrane) in 4 CDs.
Beware of Milt Jackson’s Wizard of the vibe or any other album, reissued under the Monk/Jackson name because all materials will be the same as Monk’s third and fourth CD of the BN box set.
The Genius of modern music (Vols. 1 & 2) is also another version of BN sessions but not as complete as the latter box. The French label, ‘Classics’, has released a chronological compilation from this period (1947-48) and naturally if you have the box, you won’t need this importee.
In Penguin’s guide to jazz on CD (Richard Cook & Brian Morton, sixth edition), after giving the highest rate to these recordings (four stars and a crown – symbol of a essential jazz record), we read: “though some of his work, like ‘In walked Bud’, utilized a straightforward chord sequence, and though ‘Eronel’, one of the additional tracks from the critical July 1951 with Milt Jackson, is relatively orthodox bop, Monk’s interest in tough, pianistic melody, displaced rhythm and often extreme harmonic distortion (as in his treatment of ‘Carolina Moon’) rather sets him apart from the bop mainstream.”
One of the interesting parts of these recordings is inclusion of all important Monk’s compositions; from his first record he opens our ears to masterpieces like Thelonious, Ruby, My Dear, Well, You Needn't, Off Minor, Monk's Mood, 'Round About Midnight (AKA ‘round midnight), I Should Care, Evidence, Misterioso, Epistrophy, I Mean You, Criss Cross, Straight, No Chaser. And after that, for two decades he continues to explore new boundaries in Jazz with the very same compositions. A musical comparison between different performances of the same tunes would be a great help for understanding Monk; for instance take ‘Evidence’ in BN period and compare it with Monk’s interpretation of the same piece in Five-spot café, some years later with John Coltrane. And as long as the rhythmic complexity is concerned there is a staggering version with Art Blakey and the jazz messengers (with Johnny Griffin in the line up), and several version in solo or trio format until his last records, and each one different from the other -- more daring and more experimental -- and without question the purity of performance increases in every new treatment of the song, and that’s Thelonious Monk.
Thelonious Monk Sextet
Idrees Sulieman (tp) Danny Quebec West (as) Billy Smith (ts) Thelonious Monk (p) Gene Ramey (b) Art Blakey (d)
WOR Studios, NYC, October 15, 1947
Tracks: Humph /Evonce (alt. take) / Evonce / Suburban Eyes / Suburban Eyes (alt. take) /Thelonious
Thelonious Monk Trio
Thelonious Monk (p) Gene Ramey (b) Art Blakey (d)
WOR Studios, NYC, October 24, 1947
Tracks: Nice Work If You Can Get It (alt. take/ Nice Work If You Can Get It /Ruby, My Dear (alt. take) / Ruby, My Dear / Well, You Needn't / Well, You Needn't (alt. take) / April In Paris (alt. take) /April In Paris / Off Minor / Introspection
Thelonious Monk Quintet
George Taitt (tp) Sahib Shihab (as) Thelonious Monk (p) Bob Paige (b) Art Blakey (d)
WOR Studios, NYC, November 21, 1947
E. K. Note: this session is very important folks, dig ‘In Walked Bud’ and ‘'Round About Midnight’.
Tracks: In Walked Bud /Monk's Mood /Who Knows? /'Round About Midnight / Who Knows? (Alt. take)
Thelonious Monk Quartet
Milt Jackson (vib) Thelonious Monk (p) John Simmons (b) Shadow Wilson (d) Kenny Pancho Hagood (vo -1/3)
Apex Studios, NYC, July 2, 1948
Tracks: All The Things You Are /I Should Care (alt. take) /I Should Care /Evidence /Misterioso / Misterioso (alt. take) / Epistrophy / I Mean You
Thelonious Monk Quintet
Sahib Shihab (as -1/6) Milt Jackson (vib -1/6,9) Thelonious Monk (p) Al McKibbon (b) Art Blakey (d) WOR Studios, NYC, July 23, 1951
Tracks: Four In One / Four In One (alt. take) / Criss Cross / Criss Cross (alt. take) /Eronel /Straight, No Chaser / Ask Me Now (alt. take/ Ask Me Now /Willow Weep For Me
Thelonious Monk Sextet
Kenny Dorham (tp) Lou Donaldson (as) Lucky Thompson (ts) Thelonious Monk (p) Nelson Boyd (b) Max Roach (d)
WOR Studios, NYC, May 30, 1952
Tracks: Skippy / Skippy (alt. take) / Hornin' In (alt. take) / Hornin' In / Sixteen /Sixteen (alt. take/Carolina Moon / Let's Cool One / I'll Follow You