The Genius of Monk
"A note can be as small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imagination."--Thelonious Monk
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the passing of Thelonious Monk. In his mere 64 years on this planet, Monk composed, played and recorded some of the greatest compositions of the 20th century. In fact there are people who view him as the greatest composer of his day (ahead of Duke Ellington). His style…his musical insight…are almost inhuman: there was no one who sounded like Monk. Not before, not since. His music might be challenging, but always rewarding, filled with classic melodies and incredible playing.
Monk recorded a lot of records in his day, and for the uninitiated, a wade-through his catalog can be daunting. There are so many records…all with great covers and even better music…so, where to start? To pay respect to Monk on this day, I asked some friends to think about their favorite Monk records. Their answers are below. You will definitely see some records that pop up on most of the lists (like Genius Of Modern Music Volume 1 &2, Brilliant Corners, Monk’s Dream), while each guest also introduces unique titles to fill out this great Monk listening queue.
The picks are in the order in which they were e-mailed to me (click on each persons’ name to learn more about them—it is an illustrious bunch of journalists, producers, musicians, industry veterans). We start off with John Schott, whose love for Monk has permeated his career. I signed his band TJ Kirk to Warner Bros (working with Matt Pierson, who is representing with his top five today) where he and a bunch of fez wearing jazzbos were playing the music of Monk, Roland Kirk and James Brown. More recently, Schott has made a habit of playing an eight hour version of Monk’s Round Midnight on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. In fact, today he is announcing plans to perform the piece again, in it’s entirety, on Shavuot (evening of June 4th to the morning of June 5th), with a 14-piece band as a part of Reboot’s DAWN festival: live in SF, streamed internationally. It is going to be magical. Take it away John…
JOHN SCHOTT’S MONK PICKS
I'm a Jazz musician; I'm also a passionate record collector. Acquiring every recorded note of Thelonious Monk has been an article of faith for me since I got my first Monk record in 1980. It's a moving target, because every few years some new recording is unearthed. Occasionally one of these finds changes the Monk Story as we've come to know it, as recently when a private recording of Monk playing Round Midnight in 1944 was discovered. My simple recommendation for five Monk recordings would be the complete recordings for the labels Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside, Columbia and Black Lion; that would amount to about thirty CDs. But here’s a more selective list:
1) Genius of Modern Music Vol 1. (Blue Note) Late 40s/early 50's recordings, in mono and not particularly well-recorded, originally released on 78's and 10" e.p. What I love about early Bebop, and early Thelonious Monk (not exactly the same thing) is that the recordings are PUNK: they're short, angular, purposefully weird, and full of youthful swagger. Some of the pieces Monk recorded for Blue Note are so difficult to play and improvise on that Monk pretty much abandoned them afterwards, such as Skippy, Who Knows, and Sixteen.
2) Thelonious Monk Trio (Prestige/OJC) Trio recordings from 1952 with Art Blakey and Max Roach. Simple, complex, singable, swinging, hilarious, compelling, joyous. The fact that the piano is ever so slightly out of tune somehow enhances rather than distracts from the music. Includes the first recordings of immortal Monk compositions Little Rootie Tootie, Trinkle Tinkle, Monk's Dream, Bemsha Swing and Blue Monk.
3) Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane (Riverside/OJC): Studio recordings from April-July 1957. There are only a handful of recordings of Coltrane and Monk together, but every one is electrifying, edifying, and indelible. This is when Coltrane’s unique voice really emerged. Their reverent, romantic readings of Monk's ballads - Monk's Mood, Crepescule With Nellie, Ruby My Dear... music doesn't get more beautiful.
4) Round Midnight (in progress) (Riverside/OJC): A posthumously released studio outtake from 1957, about 23 minutes in length, of Monk preparing to record a solo version of his most famous composition. Despite having played the piece many, many times, he nevertheless puts it under a microscope, slows it down to a crawl, choosing each chord, even each note in each chord, as if he is composing the piece in real time. This glimpse into Monk's process was the inspiration for my eight hour treatment of Round Midnight.
5) Wait, I only get one more?! Impossible! London Sessions! Monk's Dream! Monk at Town Hall! Underground! Five Spot! Brilliant Corners! But I'll go with the compilation album on Sony/Legacy entitled Monk Alone: The Complete Columbia Solo Studio Recordings. Although Monk's interplay with drummers and horn players is inimitable and important, these solo recordings from the mid-1960s are like miniature cathedrals of music, magnificent doll houses, replete with furnishings from the twenties and thirties, Monk's childhood. He plays corny songs practically no one had heard of – “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You” and "I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams" - and plays them with sincere affection, and just the tiniest bit of tongue in cheek.
Lastly, I would like to add the Robin D.G. Kelley’s biography of Monk is one of the best biographies of a Jazz great, perhaps THE best. It makes you realize that all of the above recordings were made against a horrific backdrop of constant police harassment, incarceration, mental illness, experimental medical treatments, and the racist laws that prevented Monk from performing in New York for much of the fifties.
SYLVIE SIMMONS’ MONK PICKS
Here’s my choices - all of them brilliant, and if someone not familiar with Monk wants to get into his music, there is no better way to start than with Genius Vol 1.
JORDAN KURLAND’S MONK PICKS
Jordan Kurland is a man who loves Thelonious Monk so much that he named both his child and his business after him.
Thelonious Alone In San Francisco- Recorded in an empty club in North Beach over a couple of afternoons in 1959. Intimate and honest, it opens with my favorite rendering of the classic, 'Blue Monk.'
Brilliant Corners - This one shows all the sides of Monk and his compositions: Idiosyncratic, inventive, complicated, inviting. Featuring Sonny Rollins on tenor sax and Max Roach on drums.
Thelonious In Action - Not the best audio quality but it captures the essence and energy of the quartet during a string of shows at New York's famed jazz club, the Five Spot.
Monk's Dream - His first album for Columbia. The quartet feels lighter and, dare I say, happier. The playing is stellar, of course, but there is an airier feeling to the session.
Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall - Recorded in 1957 but not released until 2005. Coltrane was in between his two stints with Miles Davis and Monk is captured playing a stately, grand piano.
BROOKE WENTZ’S MONK PICKS
Misterioso - This includes my favorite songs, “Misterioso” and “Round Midnight”. Recorded live at the Five Spot Cafe in NYC in 1958…how could you go wrong…You feel like the sax is blowing in your ear and Monk’s piano is just an arms-length away.
Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music - A classic Blue Note release; all his own compositions including “Straight, No Chaser”, and once again, recorded live in 1952 so the sound is more mono yet you feel like you are in the room.
Milt Jackson and the Monk Quintet - Lots of classic covers like “All the Things You Are,” “I should Care,” and “Don’t get Around Much Anymore.” How can you go wrong with Art Blakey and Kenny Clarke on drums! The album is a miss-mash of different year recordings.
Monk’s Dream - His first album on Columbia; It swings, grooves and the sound is clean and clear as it is a studio recording unlike the previous live recordings. Includes a classic cover “Just a Gigolo” and his own “Blue Bolivar Blues (Take 2)”.
Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot - This is simply his greatest hits. A two album live set where, once again, you can hear the audience talking in the background and fumbling about. But all that background noise just makes you want to focus more on the musicality and feel like you’re sitting at a tiny table with dim lit lights sipping a whiskey and tapping your feet! Love it!
JEREMIAH LOCKWOOD’S MONK PICKS
Solo Monk (1964): Monk gives me the dreamy feeling of the past being resuscitated, a technology of nostalgia. Here, the vigor and strut of the stride piano is reenvisioned as a melancholy path through history and memory. His touch is so tough minded, so rigorous. Sentimentality works for Monk as a secret weapon in his arsenal, instead of dragging the ear down into fatuous excess.
Underground (1967): This one I listened to the most and revered as the pinnacle of the Monk concept. The song title "Ugly Beauty" sums up an aesthetic that is always to be aspired to and that Monk captures so pristinely.
Plays Duke Ellington (1955): An astounding pleasure that outlines the continuities between the two masters.
Monk's Music (1957): The first strains of the horn chorale "Abide With Me" announce that something uncanny is afoot, recalling the Emily Dickinson line "After great pain, a formal feeling comes." The interplay with Art Blakey is especially provocative and pleasurable.
Live at Minton's (1947, reissued variously): I was getting into this one at first mostly for the outrageously open-hearted and free-handed Charlie Christian improvisations, such a bounty in comparison to the little 20-second bite sized solos on his commercial records with Benny Goodman...but the presence of young Monk is an understated source of much of the rich romance and heady vibe of these beautiful old field recordings.
First off, thank you for making me think about Thelonious Monk. Sometimes it’s so easy to take for granted the access we have to genius in this digital age. You get so busy listening to everything that you forget to listen to something. So, when you asked me to list my top 5 Monk albums, it made me listen. To him. And to Charlie Rouse.
Of course, I immediately visualized the album cover for Underground. I would have bought this album simply for the cover, I probably did. Working at Rainbow Records in Oklahoma City in the 1980’s, was similar to what everyone has nowadays - relatively endless access to all sorts of music except for me it was used cd’s, vinyl and tapes. After discovering “Underground” I think that the love I had for that album made made an imprint, of sorts, for that sound. So, my favorite Monk albums are really from that Columbia period.
2.Straight, No Chaser (1967)
3.Monk’s Blues (1968)
4.Monk’s Dream (1963)
If someone tells me they don’t like jazz - there are five albums that I will either send to them, or I guess now, make a playlist of. Underground is always first.
TOM SHANNON’S MONK PICKS
Thelonious Sphere Monk
In my mind Thelonious Monk never made a bad record. He is one of those artists. A constant fount of inspiration. Even when he reinterpreted his own compositions, he would find new ideas within the structures. Miles Davis considered Monk to be one the true motherfuckers, a title he bestowed on very few musicians. He did not however like to play with Monk because their styles did not mesh.
Some great records:
Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins (Prestige 7075): What more need be said? John Coltrane also played with Monk to great effect.
5 by 5: With all the famous sax players that recorded with Monk, I think Charlie Rouse understood Monk the best. They just sound right together. Like guys that grew up together and have inside jokes and a comfort level that is very evident whenever they play together. Rouse has a kind of raw, down to earth quality in his playing that fits well with Monk’s abstractions. Rouse is on many of the Columbia era records.
For all of Monk’s incredible forward-thinking compositions, I also love hearing his takes on sentimental old songs by other songwriters such as “Don’t Blame Me”. And his tribute to Duke Ellington is fantastic.
Monk’s Columbia records are also definitely worth hearing. He never made a bad recording.
TIM ZIEGLER’S MONK PICKS
Genius of Modern Music Volume 2: I only choose Vol 2 over the first in these seminal recordings because it includes “Ask Me Now”, one of my favorite melodies in jazz or anywhere.
Monk’s Music: In high school, my best friend’s dad, a jazzhead, told us about Monk’s “angular music” with this album as a reference. I was hooked. We played “Abide With Me” and “Well, You Needn’t” as the recessional at our wedding.
Thelonious Alone in San Francisco: Beautiful and sparse recordings – recorded solo and without an audience - highlight Monk’s unique genius. Stunning versions of his masterpieces “Ruby, My Dear” and “Pannonica”, and the great Chet Baker tune, “Everything Happens To Me.” Surprising and soulful every listen.
Mulligan Meets Monk: I don’t know if this is in the of the top 5 best or important Monk albums, but who cares. Top versions of “Round Midnight”, “Straight No Chaser” and “I Mean You” with these two great friends. A fantastic listen 100% of the time.
MATT PIERSON’S MONK PICKS
There are so many great ones. Off the top of my head:
Genius of Modern Music (Vl. 1 & 2) - All of the classic tunes, with Art Blakey, Gene Ramey, etc. Essential jazz.
Underground - 20 years later (1967), with Charlie Rouse, Larry Gales, Ben Riley. “Ugly Beauty,” “Green Chimneys” and “In Walked Bud” are standout tracks.
Alone in San Francisco - His third solo piano recording (from 1959) and his best. As great as the versions of “Blue Monk, “Ruby My Dear,” “Reflections, and the other originals are, you gotta check out the standards, in particular “Everything Happens to Me” and “Remember"
The Unique Thelonious Monk - A killing trio session with Art Blakey and Oscar Pettiford, all crazy Monk takes on standards. Also a solo version of “Memories of You” is fantastic.
Brilliant Corners - The best of the Riverside recordings, with some fantastic playing by Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, and Clark Terry. The title track is a definitive Monk tune, and for good measure they play mid-tempo, then double time.
That’s what I’ve got. A lot left off (damn, the London Collection of Black Lion, Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins, Town Hall, etc.) but those five are pretty great.
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