In the lengthy liner notes that introduce the new three-disc collection Thelonious Monk: The Columbia Years, jazz pundit Peter Keepnews is oddly apologetic about the music included in the anthology, at one point confessing that, among his fellow critics, "the notion has taken hold that, all things considered, maybe this portion of [Monk's] discography doesn't matter all that much."
Such comments will do little to light a fire under fans who just shelled out $40 for the new set, but Keepnews is merely being honest, as most jazz lizards shrug at the very mention of Monk's days with the label.
And while Keepnews attempts to repudiate some of the disdain that has long dogged Monk's later years, his endorsement lacks spark. He sounds like an indifferent attorney, halfheartedly defending a guilty client.
Which is too bad, because the music lionized in the collection -- as well as the two live sets that Columbia recently resurrected from its vaults -- deserves a better fate than the broad-brush death sentence it was long ago given by the jazz intelligentsia.
No one is going to argue that the eccentric pianist's 1960s sessions came close to matching his radiant recordings from the 1940s and '50s. His work for Blue Note, Riverside and Prestige turned the jazz world on its head. Visionary producers for those smaller labels were the only ones who would touch the unconventional musician in those days (one of them being Keepnews' own father, Orrin -- who also produced the three reissues). Monk and his compositions -- with their crooked notes and startling uses of space -- were considered too far out even for forward-thinking beboppers.
Fifteen years later, though, the world had caught up to Monk. He signed a fat deal with Columbia in 1962 and 18 months later appeared on the cover of Time magazine -- perhaps the ultimate in too-little-too-late tributes from white-bread conformists. Certainly, no one was more surprised by the attention than the musician himself, whose raspy quote opens the Columbia Years collection with the same remark that jump-started a Monk documentary a few years ago: "I'm famous? Ain't that a bitch."
In spite of all the attention, many believe the big label blew it. Conventional wisdom says Columbia waited too long to knock on Monk's door. After all, he was composing few new tunes at the time, preferring instead to revisit his old material (unlike his Columbia rival, Miles Davis, who -- much to the chagrin of his fans -- was refusing to look back). Jazz, meanwhile, was going in directions that made Monk's once-vanguard sounds seem cautious. And his working band at the time -- centered on saxophonist Charlie Rouse -- took a lot of flak for lacking the combustion that such past Monk collaborators as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey provided.
But open-minded fans owe it to themselves to go against that critical grain and give these undervalued recordings a second try. The joy that Monk, Rouse and the others bring to the table in these three new collections cut through the long shadow that has unfairly clouded this period for so long.
The Columbia Years does a good job outlining the six years Monk spent under contract with the label -- the good and bad. It includes some quirky, previously unreleased cuts from a session that paired Monk's Spartan style with brassy Oliver Nelson arrangements. (The cryptic humor of "Blue Monk" is just one casualty of Nelson's steamroller approach.) But there are also some gems that display Monk's playful solo skills as well as a healthy dose of the pianist fronting various ensembles in a wide array of live settings -- the brash nine-piece take of "I Mean You" being one particular standout.
But it's the first disc of the set that confirms that Monk was far from dead when he walked into Columbia's studios. Focusing on selections from his quartets, the record offers an exhilarating take of "Bye-Ya" where the pianist and Rouse trade sharp musical jabs. The saxman also provides sympathetic support in an economical reading of "Coming on the Hudson." And drummer Frankie Dunlop delivers plenty of firepower in a jaunty, previously unavailable version of "Think of One."
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Those who remain unconvinced should consider the two double-disc live sets Monk in Tokyo (from 1963) and Live at the Jazz Workshop (recorded in San Francisco, the following year). Both collections include material never before available in the U.S., as well as cuts previously released, but in mercilessly edited forms. Both are solid showcases of Monk doing what he loved best -- performing live.
Tokyo puts Monk and Rouse in front of the forceful rhythm section of Dunlop and bass player Butch Warren. The quartet tears through "Straight, No Chaser" at the outset and the pace rarely lets up. Along the way, Rouse delivers astonishing solos on "Bemsha Swing" and a Monk-ified version of the Tin Pan Alley fossil "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." The concert closes with Rouse's stunning work on "Epistrophy."
The Jazz Workshop recording gets slightly lower marks if only for the repetition of material that made up the two-night show. One valid complaint that has hobbled the Monk/Rouse partnership was that it became increasingly formulaic as the decade progressed, and the déjà vu versions of "'Round Midnight" do nothing to disprove that complaint. But, on the other hand, a couple of earthy renditions of "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are" and Monk's brief but lovely solo on "Memories of You" sparkle with surprises.
For jazz scribes and musicians both, the mid-'60s were a heady time, where every chord change was shrouded in scholarly meaning. Perhaps what stuck in the craw of most folks then -- and what lingers to this day -- was Monk's refusal to change. He was steadfast in his belief that bebop was supposed to be a celebration and, therefore, he leapfrogged right past the expected jaw-clenching seriousness of the music. If critics found his Columbia excursions lacking in depth or transition, it's only because they weren't listening.