Thursday, October 6, 2005

Mini-review: Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall
Blue Note / Thelonious Records, 2005

Thelonious Monk, piano
John Coltrane, tenor saxophone
Ahmed Abdul-Malik, bass
Shadow Wilson, drums

Recorded Friday, November 29, 1957

Early show
Monk's Mood (7:52)
Evidence (4:41)
Crepuscule with Nellie (4:28)
Nutty (5:03)
Epistrophy (Monk-K. Clarke) (4:28)

Late show
Bye-ya (6:31)
Sweet and Lovely (Arnheim-Daniels-Tobias) (9:34)
Blue Monk (6:30)
Epistrophy [incomplete] (Monk-K. Clarke) (2:24)

All compositions by Monk except as noted

Nothing in the packaging of this cd indicates just how remarkable it is that this music is now available. The package could be mistaken for a Blue Note reissue--hip lowercase sans serif lettering and beautiful line drawings of the two principals (by Felix Sockwell). What's inside though is not a reissue; it's music newly discovered by Larry Applebaum, recording lab supervisor at the Library of Congress, on a tape made for the Voice of America, from two 1957 post-Thanksgiving Carnegie Hall concerts to raise funds for a Harlem youth center. The full lineup: Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Chet Baker and Zoot Sims, Monk's quartet, and Sonny Rollins. Tickets ran from $2 to $3.95, with shows starting at 8:30 p.m. and midnight.

John Coltrane played with Thelonious Monk through much of 1957, for six months or nine months, depending upon whom you read, but there's very little of the collaboration on record. So in purely historical terms, any recording of the Monk-Coltrane quartet is of interest. The music preserved in this recording though is, by any standard of performance, extraordinary. The opening tune, "Monk's Mood," is one of the most inspired Monk performances I've heard. With the addition of Abdul-Malik's bowing and Wilson's brushwork, the performance follows the contours of the April 1957 studio recording with Coltrane and bassist Wilbur Ware, but Monk's performance here has an unusual intensity and energy. He is all over the piano, almost Cecil Taylor-like in his rising and falling arpeggios (specifically, at 3:07-3:09, 4:06-4:08, 5:50-5:52, 5:58-6:03). And the piano-tenor sections of the piece form a genuine dialogue, each musician inspiring and feeding the other. The cd, I'd suggest, is worth buying for this performance alone.

The rest of the music is full of wonders and surprises too. The percussive theme of "Evidence" gets a boost from Wilson's tasteful embellishments. "Crepuscule with Nellie" becomes downright sexy, as the tune turns into a real slow drag. Wilson's cymbals help turn the first "Epistrophy" into music to accompany a kick-line of cubists, and the performance goes on to develop a Mingus-like turbulence. Other highlights: Coltrane's two choruses on "Nutty," his double-timed solo on "Sweet and Lovely," Monk's second chorus on "Bye-ya," and the rumbling figure he plays at the start of the last chorus of the first "Epistrophy." An added pleasure: The recording quality is excellent--full, clear, and vibrant.

It seems appropriate somehow that this recording should end with an incomplete performance. As with a Sappho fragment, the wonder of this art is that it has survived at all, and the abrupt fadeout is, for me, a reminder of how lucky we are to have any of it. Thank you, Mr. Applebaum; thank you, Library of Congress; and thank you, Messrs. Monk, Coltrane, Abdul-Malik, and Wilson. Is it too much to hope that this recording will be given its due in the form of a Grammy? Or that other performances from this remarkable night will be brought to light?

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