Thelonious Monk, Not Yet At The End

on Gearbox Records
Reviewed by Henry Cherry

Jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk loved Laurel and Hardy, and playing Yahtzee with his wife Nellie, and ping pong. He once played 60 consecutive games of pong against John Coltrane, Monk winning all but one. He also lost his cabaret card (a license to play in New York clubs) for a time after being busted holding fellow pianist Bud Powell’s stash of heroin. An English Hungarian Baroness devoted her life to his patronage, even leaving her children behind, upon first hearing Monk’s music. His playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Kenny Clarke birthed Bebop, the complex rhythmic stew that changed the face of jazz. Monk’s life is sort of the quintessential American experience — filled with innovation, the impact of racism, even marked by a climactic third act when he clawed his way back to the top of the heap.

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Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Gerald Wilson at the Monterey Jazz Festival, 1963

Monk was a classically trained musician. Full of equanimity, Monk knew his limitations, and expanded them across his compositions. He was fully retired from music by the mid 70s, and died in 1982. Before that silence, Monk was forthright with what he wanted out of sound and what he needed to coax from his musicians. Monk’s musicality was so broad that John Coltrane explained his time playing with the pianist in a 1960 Downbeat interview. “I would talk to Monk about musical problems,” Coltrane told the interviewer, “and he would sit at the piano and show me the answers just by playing them.”

With two rediscovered releases in barely a year’s time, Monk is once again reclaiming his importance, this time posthumously. 2017’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 looms large over this year’s issue, Mønk, released Gearbox Records. That’s largely because Les Liaisons was partially stewarded by the king of rediscovered jazz recordings, Resonance Record’s Zev Feldman. Feldman’s hand in the recent jazz revival is every bit as artful and precise as Thelonious Monk’s piano. Both releases feature long time Monk saxophonist Charlie Rouse. Les Liaisons is a studio session that features a rare two tenor band backing the pianist. Mønk is a live outing with one of the tightest bands he performed and recorded with. Both releases offer songs fans will recognize instantly.

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Thelonious Monk and Charlie Rouse

While Les Liaisons may have overshadowed this release (its liner notes were written by Monk’s best biographer, UCLA’s Nash Professor of American History Robin Kelley) the music on Mønk is more intriguing as it showcases this quartet blistering on a live date; something previous attempts failed to do. The recording comes from a Copenhagen date in early March of 1963. Monk, along with his quartet of Rouse, bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop, had recorded Monk’s Dream, Criss Cross, Monk in Italy, and Monk in France, the latter two a couple of live sets that put little sheen the quartet’s abilities. Their studio recordings, however, are must haves. Ore and Dunlop would both be gone from the band by ’64. Rouse would stick with Monk until 1970. Their work with Monk serves as high water mark for his last full decade as a gigging and working jazzer. He would equal this level of play with other musicians, though never as consistently.

Monk and his peers toed the compositional tightrope following creative instinct into aggressively improvisational music while at the same time trying to remain attractive to listeners. Free Jazzers like Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman (whose music Monk pointedly disliked) cut their teeth on the robustly harmonious music of their jazz forefathers, like Monk and Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong. Still, the free jazzers sought to strip out much of melody’s repetitious problems in favor of new strategic passages that often whorled into darker, noisier territory. Eventually Miles Davis, Coltrane and Mingus found themselves expanding into that arena; lured by the shapelessness of expression that created such astoundingly complex and situational music. Coltrane explored a free form duo that soared past modalism, into blazing aural mysticism. Miles rode two different paths at once, searing his electrified demonic fusion to wild cut and paste edits made in the studio with producer Teo Macero. Mingus ably folded the more secular Loft Jazz sound into his own rambunctious gospel of work, bringing free jazz accolade Don Pullen into his last great band.

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RIOT MATERIAL is LA’s premier literary-cultural magazine with an eye on art, word, and forward-aiming thought. Check out our gallery on IG: @ riotmaterial.

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