By James Calemine
The Definitive Monk is culled from a broad span of Monk’s songs from 1952 up until 1960. North Carolina born Thelonious Monk was already playing in Harlem clubs by 1941, yet it took a while for his talent to ignite in New York City.
These 21 songs rank as unmitigated joy. The recordings demonstrate Monk’s sheer talent, versatility and genius operating at an apex. Other musicians on this collection include Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Curly Russell, Tommy Potter, Milt Jackson, Wilbur Ware, Ray Copeland, Miles Davis, Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Joe Gordon, Charlie Rouse, and Billy Higgins.
These Prestige and Riverside recordings afforded Monk the ability to collaborate with other jazz greats. This new release contains compositions from the albums The Thelonious Monk Trio, Thelonious Monk/Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants, Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, The Unique Thelonious Monk, Brilliant Corners, Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane,Thelonious Himself, Monk’s Music, Mulligan Meets Monk, Thelonious In Action, Misterioso, The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall, 5 By Monk By 5 and At the Blackhawk.
Ashley Kahn’s detailed liner notes provide an insightful glimpse into the details and chronology of these recordings. Monk composed every song on this collection. Disc 1 begins with the light-hearted “Bye-Ya”. “We See” offers another up-tempo tune featuring Art Blakey on drums, Frank Foster on tenor sax and Curly Russell on bass. “Blue Monk” contends as one of the artist’s finest accomplishments–seven minutes of pure sanctuary. “I Want to Be Happy” would not resonate like it does without the expertise of tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins.
“Bemsha Swing” finds Miles Davis’ golden trumpet creeping into Monk’s orbit. This song retains a medicinal quality that verifies its timelessness. “Caravan” preserves Monk’s ability to play with sparse gravity. “Tea For Two” stands as one of Monk’s signature songs. “Pannonica”, retains a lanquid sonic landscape that exudes calm over the listener. “Brilliant Corners” finds Monk navigating with Rollins, Pettiford and Max Roach into deep waters.
Disc 2 commences with an 11-minute “Well, You Needn’t” that traverses sacred jazz territory with help from his friends John Coltrane (another North Carolina native), Coleman Hawkins, Ray Copeland and Art Blakey. Each track on this collection tells an amazing story. “Off Minor (take 5)” and “Epistrophy”, two Monk gems, comprise the same musicians from “Well, You Needn’t” indicating the larger sound Monk sought. “Trinkle, Tinkle” originated from the classic album Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane that transcends description…this song conjures time travel. Coltrane once called Monk: “a musical architect of the highest order.”
“Rhythm-a-ning” counts as Monk’s collaboration with Gerry Mulligan. “Evidence” and “Nutty were both recorded in August 1958 at the legendary jazz club the Five Spot, where these songs extend beyond the last outpost of time. “Little Rootie Tootie” unleashes a wall of sound from Monk’s landmark performance at Town Hall. “Straight, No Chaser” retains a late night blues sentiment and stands as another singular Monk tune. “Ruby, My Dear” exists as a classic piece of music with Monk unaccompanied on piano recorded in San Francisco. The final track on this fantastic collection, “Four In One (take 2)”, counts as a high level of jazz expression.
The Definitive Thelonious Monk on Prestige and Riverside captures some of the finest music Monk ever recorded.