The Not-So-Mad Monk

Jazz Profiles #24 (Blue Note); Live At The It Club Complete (Columbia)
Thelonious Monk

By Jeff Kallman

So it turns out, after all, that Thelonious Monk really was the sleeping giant of bebop, the man whose music was going to sound more vigorous, fresh, passionate and attractive than his peers.

After all, it floated (and still does) well beyond the rapacious cutting-contest ethic that dominated the music, thanks to the Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie axis. But how on earth could it have been otherwise? Monk paid the most attention of the lot of them to composition and to rhythm. Put a contract out on me if you wish, but Bird and Diz, brilliant instrumentalists though they certainly were, were, wind in the end, blowing in the. They've gone down, correctly, as spectacular blowers who influenced (rightly or wrongly) several generations of instrumental flashers. Monk has gone down, by contrast, as a musician, the only true individualist of bebop, who proved in due course that maybe there was a method to his madness after all.

For those sparse harmonies and off-center melodies have proven too endearing to dismiss. So has Monk's rather spare piano style, which was one of the most striking styles of its (or any) time, with more than a few patches of stride and a relaxing knack for drawing lyricism from note patterns that another pianist might make into clams. Monk may not have been a virtuoso, strictly defined, but there are probably more charming suggestions in any two chiming off-chords of his than in any hundred showers from others.

The Blue Note disc is a perfect introduction to that formative period. There are some very impressive hitters in his lineups, most notably vibraphonist Milt Jackson (his turn on the classic Monk composition "Straight, No Chaser" is shimmering and swinging), drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach, and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. Coltrane appears on a cut from a 1958 session, at a time when he was coming into his own as a real saxophone visionary; the mania which was to inspire all those insane caterwaulings which too many still insist upon calling seminal masterworks was still a few years away.

It is as much a pleasure to hear some of 'Monk's signature compositions (" Straight, No Chaser," "Epistrophy," "Well, You Needn't", "Monk's Mood," "'Round Midnight") in their earliest recorded workouts as it is to hear his subsequent (and very frequent) re-interpretations. From here, you may want to take the chance and purchase the reissued first two albums, Genius of Modem Music Vols. I and II, from which much of this sampler draws.

The Columbia set, by contrast, is a well-expanded reissue, centered around a two-­record set released posthumously in the early 1980s from a 1964 stand at a San Francisco club, now long gone. It also features three once-unissued tracks and three which first appeared on a live set (Misterioso) which credited them incorrectly as having been performed at another San Francisco club, the Jazz Workshop. Where appropriate, the songs are included at full length; there's not a superfluous note played in any of them. This was one group leader who guided his men (the underrated tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales, drummer Ben Riley) through very lengthy workouts without losing the plot or the wit.

One of the misidentified performances is a delightful quartet version of Tommy Dorsey's longtime band theme, "I'm Gettin' Sentimental Over You," which is on its third consecutive playing as I write, simply because it has the most melodiously swinging piano solo I have ever heard Monk play. "Blue Monk" and "Straight, No Chaser" are the evidence that this group could and did play the blues with authority;" Bemsha Swing" is charming; "'Round Midnight" is lyricism epitomized, even in double-time; "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are" is brisk and insinuating. For a rhythm section that was together only a very short while, Gales and Riley play as though they were teammates for at least a decade. Rouse, of course, lets out more soul and more thematic empathy in his improvisations without sacrificing melodic cohesion than any hundred saxophonists with twice his chops and name recognition.

And presiding over it all was the not-so-mad Monk, whether rolling out the counterpoints on his themes, punching out those quirky feedings to Rouse, laying out and conducting while Charlie takes a ride or slipping back in for one of his striking, individualistically simple. often playful solos. Keep it simple, keep it swinging: maybe we won't win any cutting contests, but maybe we'll make better music if it's a chronic problem we all have.