Thelonious Monk

Feeling Monkish

1956 was very good year for jazz buffs

By Greg Cahill

A lot of jazz buffs, fans and critics alike, were flummoxed by Thelonious Monk’s angular rhythms and sideways chord progressions when the hard-bop pianist started recording for the Blue Note label in 1948. For a while, he seemed destined to become a cult figure revered by only a small cadre of jazz cognoscenti. But 1956’s Brilliant Corners (Riverside), newly remastered as a hybrid stereo SACD that bristles with startling clarity, provided the breakthrough that would win over even his staunchest critics.

Brilliant Corners was Monk’s third album on the Riverside label and the first with all original music. It’s genesis was a painful one.

For the recording session, Monk enlisted alto saxophonist Ernie Henry (considered Coltrane’s equal at the time), tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and drummer Max Roach (trumpet player Clark Terry sits in on one track and Miles Davis’ bassist Paul Chambers replaces Pettiford on another). But despite the talent-laden lineup, the musicians struggled to master Monk’s complicated compositions. Producer Orrin Keepnews recalled that it took 25 takes and four hours in the studio to lay down an acceptable version of the title track, which required the players to double their tempo every second chorus. “I had no way of foreseeing how incredibly more difficult this would be for me [than the first two albums],” Keepnews once wrote. “Basically dealing with Monk in full-scale action meant that it was my job to supervise and control the creative flow of recording sessions that involved a perfectionist leader driving a group of sensitive and talented artists beyond their limits.”

Those bruised egos were worth the effort.

Clocking in at just over 48 minutes, the five-track Brilliant Corners featured one unaccompanied piano piece (“I Surrender, Dear”) and two blues numbers (including “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are,” a tune dedicated to the Hotel Bolivar, where, according to Straight, No Chaser author Leslie Gourse, management had objected to Monk wandering the halls in a bright red shirt that accentuated the pianist’s eccentric demeanor and even scared guests).

In retrospect, the blues tunes, along with the ballad “Pannonica,” contribute to the album’s relatively laid-back feel and belie the on-the-edge innovation of the composer’s work. But Brilliant Corners is still notable for its remarkable freshness–just as it served as a calling card to a broader audience in the conservative Eisenhower Era, this new SACD release reminds us just how creative Monk was in his day and what a driving force he became on the bop and post-bop scene.

Meanwhile, despite a fairly aggressive SACD release schedule, Fantasy Records (God bless ’em) is continuing to issue its stellar audiophile-quality 20-bit K2 Super Coding jazz series, with several recent reissues that include Thelonious Himself (Riverside), a 1957 session equally split between originals and standards in a mostly solo-piano setting (John Coltrane and bassist Wilbur Ware pop up to accompany Monk on one fine track, “Monk’s Mood”).

Other recent K2 releases include 1957’s Traneing In, featuring John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio; Sonny Rollins’ 1956 album Worktime, the saxophonist’s first album since kicking the heroin habit that almost wrecked his career; the Wes Montgomery Trio’s eponymous debut release-the guitarist’s first session as a bandleader; and Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot, Vol 1, the 1961 recording that captured the legendary saxophonist and one of the era’s greatest jazz bands (with trumpet player Booker Little, pianist Mal Waldron, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Ed Blackewell) on the final night of their only extended concert engagement.

And you can never own too many Eric Dolphy CDs.

Web extra to the July 28-August 3, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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