Sandwiched between his brassy recordings for Blue Note and his breathtaking work for Riverside, Thelonious Monk did a two-year stint with Prestige. Occasionally forgotten, sometimes overlooked, often dismissed, Monk's work as a sideman for the label and the three albums he recorded under his own name there have always gotten something of a bum rap -- deemed "second-shelf Monk," whatever that means.
But as this three-CD set demonstrates, the idiosyncratic pianist's brief tenure with the fledgling label was a fruitful time. Monk was brimming with ideas and energy; meanwhile, some incredible and like-minded talent surrounded him. Any negative reputation that eclipses his Prestige achievements is the work of quibbling critics.
Outside of the studio, the early 1950s were lean years for Monk. Labels were afraid of his jaunty, angular and sometimes weird music just as they were afraid of his jaunty, angular and sometimes weird reputation. He had lost his New York cabaret card, which meant he was unable to work in clubs that served alcohol. Meanwhile, he had a family to support.
But despite the uncertain times, Monk still sounds playful and confident in these sessions, which were recorded between 1952 and 1954. (Actually, the collection opens with four titles recorded under Coleman Hawkins' leadership in 1944. They were made for the long-gone Joe Davis label, but, according to the liner notes, Monk's lyrical accompaniment on those recorded relics caught the ear of Prestige owner Bob Weinstock. The rest is history.)
Frequent Monk collaborators Art Blakey and Sonny Rollins steal the supporting honors in this set. Blakey's work on "Bemsha Swing," "Little Rootie Tootie" and a great cover of "These Foolish Things" reminds listeners what a dynamic duo the two musicians made. And Rollins' bluesy accompaniment shines on the Monk originals "Think of One" and the pulsating "Friday the 13th" (which Peter Keepnews dismisses as "boring" in the collection's liner notes -- the sound of one critic quibbling). Rollins and Monk also glide through an exhilarating take of "The Way You Look Tonight."
There are plenty of other remarkable moments throughout the anthology, contributed by both familiar and lesser-known talents. Frank Foster and Ray Copeland supply some vigorous bebop blowing, and Julius Watkins' French horn, although an odd-sounding addition, actually smooths over several of Monk's famed sharp angles, particularly on "Let's Call This."
The collection closes with the well-known Prestige session that was interrupted when Miles Davis supposedly went toe-to-toe with Monk in an argument about back-up playing. These days the alleged encounter is written off as a myth; in fact, both musicians later said the incident amounted to little more than a disagreement between two clashing egos. But it was Monk who offered the best appraisal of the incident. "Miles'd got killed if he hit me," said the pianist.
It was the same type of to-the-point brevity that Monk brought to his music.
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