Jazz lizards paid scant attention to Thelonious Monk's 1960s Columbia releases. Where once Monk was revered as a revolutionary, fickle LBJ-era critics and enthusiasts had moved on to the pointy-headed and pompous sounds of Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor and others. The irony, of course, was that most of the "space boys" -- as Sun Ra called them -- were diluted disciples of Monk.
The critical inattentiveness was too bad, because what the scribes missed -- as Sony-Legacy's new repackaging of the four mid-'60s Monk releases shows -- was that a master of musical space and time was revisiting his own occasionally ornate work with a renewed and leaner approach.
Underground, from 1967, certainly makes this case. Included on the disc is a lengthier and more soothing take on "Thelonious" than fans of the jarring 1940s Blue Note version might recall. Even more important to fans is the sympathetic and pristine "Ugly Beauty," which was rarely recorded. Criss Cross, from 1963, might be the best of the four discs, stacked as it is with fresh, tightly laced spins on Monk chestnuts. And Solo Monk -- where the offbeat pianist travels unescorted back to the turn of the century and applies his angular line of attack to a handful of forgotten Tin Pan Alley relics -- deserves "classic" status among jazz snobs.
So if the harvest was so good, why did Monk receive the critical cold shoulder? Perhaps it was the presence of tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. No one questions Rouse's talent, but he played with Monk for more than a decade (as opposed to Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, who each stayed under Monk's wing for about two years). The knock has always been that as time went by, Rouse relied on a certain "sameness" in his approach to Monk. True enough, but he could still startle even at that point, as he does with his effervescent work on It's Monk's Time's "Lulu's Back in Town."
Maybe Columbia's clownish and embarrassing attempts to be "hip" in their cover art rubbed critics the wrong way. Maybe the lucrative contract Monk signed with the big label -- after living like a pauper for decades -- left fans believing he had "sold out." Or perhaps it was Monk's sense of humor, alive and well, in an era when elitists believed long faces equaled music insight.
Whatever the reason, time has been kinder to this segment of Monk's catalogue than critics once were. And this might be a second chance for the intelligentsia to get it right.
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