Thursday, September 22, 2011

Thelonious Monk

Going through some CDs the other day I came across a Thelonious Monk recording from 1965 called, "Monk in Paris: Live at the Olympia." The performance, as always, is something to behold. Monk's group from the 1960s doesn't always get the acclaim it deserves, since there has been a tendency among jazz critics to measure everything he did against his work from the late 1940s to late 1950s, Monk's most prolific compositional period and when his bands featured musicians like Art Blakey and John Coltrane. But I know many Monk-o-philes who are quite content to listen to his CBS recordings featuring Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone and Ben Riley on drums. Rouse, in particular, was a great interpreter of Monk's music and he shines on this recording.

I had forgotten, however, that the CD included a DVD featuring Monk performing three tunes from a separate concert in Oslo, Norway. And as the liner notes to the disc point out, you had to SEE Monk to really appreciate what he was doing, and just how incredible his compositions were. The band plays "Lulu's Back," "Blue Monk," and "Round Midnight," and all the musicians swing their asses off. Just watching Ben Riley is a humbling experience -- his kit consists of a kick drum, snare, hi-hat and a crash/ride, and he makes more music from these four instruments than most modern drummers make with an arsenal of toms, electronic enhancements, nine or ten cymbals, a double-bass drum, remote hi-hat and so on. And Monk, of course, is a trip: watching him play you get the impression that there is so much he could be doing but would rather toy with his listeners by leaving us to wonder what is going to happen next. His percussive, angular piano style always met with a mixed reception by critics who loved his compositions and his bands. Monk's piano playing has gotten a better reception over the years; I, for one, have always loved him. No pianist, not even Bill Evans, could infuse his playing with the wit and humor that Monk did; and no one has since.

For the Monk neophyte, this recording is a good place to start because you get the DVD along with a superb recorded live concert. But be careful. You'll get hooked, and before you know it you'll be spending a lot more time (and money) trying to figure out what this seminal American musician was all about.

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