Blue Notes: Thelonious Monk, by Robin Lynam

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 3:49pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 3:49pm

Thelonious Monk died in 1982 at the relatively young age of 64, but he still lasted a lot longer than his friends and fellow bebop pioneers Charlie Parker, who died aged 34 in 1955, and Bud Powell, at 41 in 1966.

Monk didn't have the drug and alcohol problems Parker and Powell shared, but he had a debilitating and probably misdiagnosed mental illness in common with Powell and, by his son T.S. Monk's account, this worsened as the 1960s wore on.

By 1969, when Monk senior played a concert which was recorded for television at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, he was also dealing with problems with his record company, Columbia, which was about to drop him, and difficulty in holding a regular band together.

It's remarkable, given those circumstances, that the music from that concert, now issued in the Blue Note CD/DVD package Thelonious Monk, Paris 1969, is as good as it is. Still, it's not quite a lost treasure in the way the rediscovered 1957 Library of Congress recording which produced 2005's Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall album is.

Music from the Paris gig is presented here for the first time in full in both audio and video format, taken directly from the original recordings. Unfortunately, they were chopped up for broadcast as two half-hour television programmes, and some footage was lost in the process.

For this release the concert has been re-edited into something like chronological order for the CD, with a different order for the DVD, each in a way the producers believe offers a more cohesive feel of the concert.

An extraordinarily maladroit post-concert TV interview on the DVD makes it clear the people who filmed this were interested in Monk's role in jazz history, and not at all in the music he was making that night, but although received wisdom is that by 1969 he was well past his best, some of the playing here suggests otherwise.

The concert takes place towards the end of the pianist's 11-year association with tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, and their rapport is clear throughout, but particularly on a lovely Ruby, My Dear.

A young rhythm section comprising drummer Austin "Paris" Wright - then only 17 - and bassist Nate Hygelund adds some welcome energy to the band. Also present that night was drummer Philly Joe Jones, one of the many American jazz musicians who had taken their careers to Paris.

Jones takes over the kit for a 10-minute Nutty and Blue Monk, the latter sadly edited down to two minutes. He takes the music up a gear. We also get Monk alone at the piano for stride piano-influenced versions of Don't Blame Me and I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams, followed by Crepuscule with Nellie.

Meanwhile, congratulations to the Hong Kong Arts Festival on presciently booking singer Gregory Porter before he won this year's Grammy award for best jazz vocal album, Liquid Spirit. He plays the Cultural Centre Concert Hall with his quartet on Friday and Saturday.

Take Three

Three classic albums from different stages of Monk's career.

  • The Complete Blue Note Recordings (1994, Blue Note): a four-CD compilation of the music Monk recorded for the label starting in 1947, including many of the most important 78rpm sides later collected on the LPs and CDs Genius of Modern Music Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. His original takes of 'Round Midnight, Ruby, My Dear and Straight No Chaser were all recorded during these sessions.
  • Brilliant Corners (1957, Riverside): despite a confrontational atmosphere in the studio during the recording sessions, this landmark 1950s jazz album contains some of the best performances Monk ever achieved in the studio, thanks to a stellar cast of musicians which included Max Roach on drums, Oscar Pettiford on bass, and Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone.
  • Solo Monk (1965, Columbia): Monk remains perhaps the most underrated of jazz's prominent pianists. His fondness for staccato chords, unpredictable pauses and dissonance can sound clumsy, and convinced many that whatever his gifts as a composer he couldn't really play. This 1964 solo recording - now much extended with alternate takes - is Monk at the piano, warts and all, and proves that he knew exactly what he was doing.