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During the month of March The Four Jazz Features will be about the music of the iconic pianist/composer Thelonious Monk (1917-1982). Monk, of course was a musical iconoclast and carved his own way through the language of Jazz. I have selected four significant Monk recordings from his vast discography that I hope will reveal his importance to the world of music and will be entertaining and stimulating as well.
The first of the Features is a recording of two early small band sessions led by Monk. One from 1952 which was his last for Blue Note Records with a fine well organized sextet with trumpeter Kenny Dorham, alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson and tenor saxophone master Lucky Thompson. Nelson Boyd is on bass and the great Max Roach is on drums. The other is from 1954 on his then new label, Prestige Records and was his most cohesive quintet recording for that label with a band that included trumpeter Ray Copeland, tenor saxophonist Frank Foster, bassist Percy Heath and Monk’s favourite drummer and best friend, Art Blakey. These recordings are now considered Monk classics but in their day they never were heard on the radio nor did the records sell well. Monk was still largely an unknown underground figure and was considered by the critics to be at best “an eccentric”. Monk was dropped from both labels. This two sessions sound as fresh as tomorrow show Monk’s worth as a player/composer.
The second Monk Jazz Feature is from a happier time as he is signed by a new label, Riverside Records and his legal problems, not of his doing, have been sorted out and he is being heard more frequently in New York clubs. His new producer Orrin Keepnews was good for Monk and suggested as a first album that he do a trio date and not play his own tunes but the tunes of some others. Monk, who could be at times difficult agreed to to an album of Duke Ellington’s tunes. It was a great start for his new label and the album sold well and was heard on Jazz radio as well. Monk’s interpretations of the familiar Ellington melodies are all his own and his piano is backed beautifully by bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Kenny Clarke. “Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington” opened the door to the general public.
“Monk’s Music” from 1957 is one of his early true masterpieces bar none. It’s a septet with two great tenor saxophonists one from the past and one looking to the future: Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane. Alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce works hard here and helped Monk arrange some of the music as well. Trumpeter Ray Copeland was Monk;s favourite at this time. Bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Art Blakey keep the fires burning. The music jumps out of the grooves and has a looseness and spontaneity that is rarely captured in a recording studio. Yes there are some small flaws in the session but that just adds to the immediacy of the music. “Monk’s Music” indeed!!!
Our final Monk Jazz Feature will be one of our longest ones and will present Monk’s Quartet with Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone just at the start of his eleven year stay with Thelonious. Bassist Sam Jones and drummer Arthur Taylor’s powerhouse drive and swing push everyone here. This is from a legendary concert at New York’s Town Hall in February 1959. The Quartet kicks things off with three Monk staples then makes way for The Thelonious Monk Orchestra playing Monk tunes orchestrated by arranger and Monk collaborator Hall Overton. The 10 piece orchestra adds French horn, trombone and tuba to the Monk Quartet along with trumpeter Donald Byrd, alto saxophonist Phil Woods and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams as members and soloists along of course with Monk, Charlie Rouse, Sam Jones and Arthur Taylor. Monk by this time was fully established and accepted as one of the music’s most important figures and remained so to this day. “The Thelonious Monk Quartet and Orchestra at Town Hall” was a pivotal event and a great historic document. Be there tonight!