Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Magic of Mediocre Monk

Which album is Thelonious Monk's best? Brilliant Corners, Monk's Music, or a collection of his best Blue Note sides would all be reasonable nominees for that honor. Maybe the fairly recent issue of the Carnegie Hall concert with Coltrane is a contender. I know of a few knowledgeable listeners who rate 5 By Monk By 5 above all other Monk albums. But I don't think anyone would place the Columbia album simply called Monk. at the top of the Monkian heap.

And I agree - Monk. (the period is part of the title) is not only not Monk's best album, it's not really even near the top of Monk's Columbia output, which most listeners don't consider on the same level as the Blue Note or Riverside recordings. Without thinking about it very hard, I would put Monk's Dream, Big Band and Quartet in Concert, and Underground from the Columbia catalog above Monk., and on reflection would probably consider other Columbia albums superior to Monk.

But I've listened to Monk. several times in the last few days, and am struck with the realization that even this lesser Monk effort is a magical thing, full of striking moments. The record was made in 1964 by Monk's working quartet of the time, including longtime musical companion Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, Ben Riley on drums, and Larry Gales on bass, except on "Teo." That track was recorded seven months earlier than the rest of the album; Butch Warren was the bassist - a fact which wasn't noted on the original album, and is still not mentioned on my 2002 reissue.

Monk. is unusual in that it contains more pop standards than Monk originals - there are only two of the latter. Monk opens the album with his imaginative reharmonization of Gershwin's "Liza;" Rouse's brilliant solo here justifies Monk's loyalty to a saxophonist some critics never thought was musician enough to hang with Monk. "April in Paris," a tune Monk recorded at least seven times, follows. My favorite moment is Monk's last chord, a thick cluster sustained until it fades away. Another standard, "I Love You," is played solo in Monk's best stride-piano-on-acid style. There are two originals, an old one ("Pannonica," written in 1956) and a brand-new one ("Teo"). I don't think anyone would claim that "Teo" is classic Monk, but this deceptively simple tune has some nice, unusual touches.

I'm glad we have the Blue Notes, the Prestige recordings, and the Riversides, but I'm also glad we have albums like Monk. The title of this post is only to be taken seriously in context; if Monk. is mediocre, it's only in comparison to his masterpieces. If this was somehow the only recording we had by an obscure pianist/composer named Thelonious Monk, we'd still know that he was something special.

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