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Opinion | A ‘new’ album by one of jazz’s greatest pianists

An unreleased recording by Thelonious Monk surfaces. And reminds us again of how important a jazz musician he was.

Thelonious Monk performing at Minton’s Playhouse jazz club in New York in 1947.
Thelonious Monk performing at Minton’s Playhouse jazz club in New York in 1947.

Old jazz recordings often have fascinating backstories. So it was when a new album by the pianist and composer Thelonious Monk surfaced last week, 52 years after it was recorded live. Monk was then 51, and the recording is of a live concert that the quartet he led then played at a high school in Palo Alto, California.

It all began with the initiative of a 16-year-old student at the school, Danny Scher. A big jazz fan, Scher, according to the story, was too young to see Monk live in San Francisco, where the musician was then playing. So he decided to pluckily call Monk and ask whether he would perform at his school.

Monk agreed and the concert was held in 1968, amid the racial tensions then prevailing in Palo Alto. The concert may have helped ease some of that tension, for it drew an audience of blacks, whites, young and old people, all turning up to hear the great pianist and his band play. There are other stories connected to that nearly forgotten gig. It was, apparently, recorded by the school’s janitor and although there’s some crackle and hiss, the recording quality is pretty good. The other story is about how the tapes lay in the Scher household for decades before they were released more than half a century after the performance.

Thelonious S. Monk (the S stands for “Sphere", a middle name that he bestowed on himself so that he wouldn’t appear “square") was a contemporary of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and is counted among the leading exponents of contemporary (bebop style) jazz. But unlike his peers, who produced and recorded vast amounts of music from the mid-1940s, it wasn’t till the 1950s that Monk began seriously recording his music. In the late 1950s, his famous sideman was the saxophonist John Coltrane, who had been fired by trumpeter Miles Davis for his drug addiction. When Monk and his ensemble, including Coltrane, played a gig at a New York City jazz club, his talent and influence on other jazz musicians began getting noticed.

Monk’s style of playing the piano was different from many other pianists. He used a percussive style that can sometimes sound a bit off-key. In fact, he would often let his piano be imperfectly tuned—and that actually lent a novel dimension to his sound. On the few videos that show him playing, you can see the way his fingers strike the piano’s keys, like multiple drum sticks.  

He also had a sartorial style that made him stand out. He was big. And he sported a distinctive goatee and a collection of striking hats. He also had an unorthodox stage presence. When others in his quartet played their solos, he would often walk around the stage, smoke or make a few dance moves.

One of the reasons why Monk began recording or performing a little later than his peers was that he had lost his licence (it was known as a “cabaret card"), issued by the police in New York, which was needed to perform at jazz clubs. Monk’s licence was forfeited for some time owing to a couple of drug- related charges. Critics too were not favourably inclined, owing to his unconventional style, and it took years before reviewers and jazz writers realized the originality of his style and the importance of his compositions. Many today regard him as among jazz’s most important composers.

The “new" Monk album (it is simply titled Palo Alto), on which his then bandmates—Charlie Rouse (tenor sax), Larry Gales (bass) and Ben Riley (drums)—feature, has many of the pianist’s signature compositions, such as Ruby, My Dear, Blue Monk and Epistrophy. At just 47 minutes, it is not a long album—and that is a pity because it is a relaxed, yet enjoyable performance. Each member of the quartet performs long solos on most tracks, particularly on the 13-minute Well, You Needn’t. Besides Rouse’s solo, Monk’s playful improvisation of the tune on that track is memorable.

Probably because his career bloomed a little later in life than his contemporaries, Monk, unlike the other jazz musicians of his time, refrained from pushing the boundaries of the music he played—for instance, he avoided incursions into free-form or avant-garde jazz of the type that, say, Davis or Charles Mingus would experiment with. But that is probably also what makes Monk one of the most significant exponents of the bebop form of jazz, a fast-tempo style that evolved in the 1940s and prevailed through the 1950s.

Though Monk began recording late, there is a massive discography to choose from. There are so many studio recordings, compilations and live albums that it can be perplexing to select a few. But one of my favourite Monk albums (perhaps because an older friend gifted me a vinyl back in the late 1970s), is 1963’s Criss-Cross, produced by Teo Macero, who also produced Davis’ acclaimed Bitches Brew. The title track of the album, written as Criss Cross, is barely 5 minutes long but it showcases Monk’s unconventional style—his rare talent of using spaces and intervals instead of speediness to compose his tunes. There is also a solo stellar version of his well-known tune Don’t Blame Me, which makes Criss-Cross an essential Monk album to have.

Monk died in 1982 at 64. He faced many health issues, including mental illness, in his later years and couldn’t really play the piano in the last six years. His music lives on, though. His estate, which released Palo Alto,will be releasing more hitherto unpublished recordings of the master pianist over the next five years.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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