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Thelonious Himself

Riverside Records/Original Jazz Classics/Prestige OJCCD-254-2



Thelonious Himself

Produced by Orrin Keepnews
Recorded in New York, USA, on 12 and 16 April, 1957.
Riverside Records/Original Jazz Classics/Prestige OJCCD-254-2 (RLP-235)
Remastered 1987
66 minutes
Tracks at end of review.

Full upfront disclosure: I am a Monk completist, as I reckon he composed and played some of the greatest music ever.

That now said, this recording is one of the hardest to love on his shelf. It may be among the last recommendations any jazz lover still unfamiliar with the great Thelonious Monk should get. Although the album overall has the laconic feel of a pianist trying out a few tunes at his instrument, there is something stark, forbidding, even headstrong about the playing; the music makes no effort to endear itself. After several tracks, it may be easier to take a break and return to it than to persist to the end.

This 1957 recording is one of only three albums where Monk is on piano solo. The others are "Thelonious Alone in San Francisco" (Prestige: October '59), and "Solo Monk" (Columbia: 1964-65). Several critics regard this earliest outing as the best.

The only let-up from Thelonious's solitude at the keyboard comes at the very end, in “Monk's Mood”—a track where he is joined by none other than John Coltrane, with Wilbur Ware on bass, after minute 2:46. It is a languid, near-8-minute-long track that, without a drummer, keeps to the album's stark feel. It harks to sessions from their trailblazing album, "Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane," recorded April to July 1957.

That historic studio release was followed by the two jazz giants’ collaboration on an unplanned pair of live albums: the poor-yet-worthy bootleg "Live at the Five Spot Discovery!" (summer '57) and "Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall." This last dates to November '57, and was an unexpected 2005 rediscovery—which, quite apart from being in excellent sound, is easily one of the great musical finds ever.

Be all this as it may, the present album is 100% pure Monk, so completely engaging if you do not tire of the solo-piano sound—which, as any Monkphile knows, is quite deliberately never smooth, and then some. Any efforts at such smoothing are usually left to Monk’s backup players in trios, especially saxophone accompanists in quartets, and by instrumental ensembles in his quintets, septets, nonets, and, rarest of all, larger bands. This release is also fairly unusual for including several standards by others, while most Monk albums almost exclusively feature his own compositions.

Thelonious Monk is a curious case of a musician without easily discernible developmental phases. His playing can be introverted and on some records more exuberant, but it is not easy to divide his music into the usual chronological phases. Monk re-recorded his own songs numerous times—far, far more than most jazz composers—but he rewards attentive listening for never playing any in the same way twice.

Still, his voice developed early and changed little over the rest of his career—which spanned from the 1940s until his fairly sudden retirement in 1973. As shown in the 1988 documentary “Straight, No Chaser,” produced by Clint Eastwood, Monk suffered from bouts of mental illness. In addition, he was only marginally articulate and was deeply dependent on others—certainly during his later years. He made a few appearances in the mid-70s, but the rest of his life was spent in near-seclusion.

"I’m getting Sentimental Over You" is a standard made famous by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1935. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass blew away my attention with their slick version on the 1965 “!!Going Places!!” album. Monk's treatment is a far drier affair, and in many ways its diametric opposite. Still, it is nowhere as introspective as the rest of this album’s music, and may thereby provide a doorway to anyone puzzled by Monk’s quirky musical language, especially to grasp the liberties he takes with tempo and dynamics.

“Functional” is another intriguing number on this disc for being a seldom-recorded Monk tune that gets a well-rounded treatment. This includes rhythmic passages showing stride elements amid his more pensive, hiccupping, stop-and-start, sometimes amusingly hesitant articulations.

There are rich but subtle treats of one kind or another throughout this album, which may well be characterized as Monk at his most introspective.

The 22-minute “Round Midnight” is of particular interest, since it involves a variety of treatments of the tune, as it is protracted, and as Monk’s playing makes no effort at zip. My guess is that it may challenge even Monk enthusiasts who do not happen to be delighting in a single malt after hours in some smoky room, ideally in solitude. The producer, Orrin Keepnews, added to the liner notes a special remark about this track, essentially that it was Monk's series of attempts to find just the right shape for the tune, which O.K. later reassembled into one long sequence. At 12½ minutes we hear some dialogue with the recording booth staff, as at 15:22 and 16:30.

Just as Monk never played any of his music the same way twice, here Monk elaborates on “Round Midnight” in a profusion of ways. Yet all the playing, in short, seemed to Keepnews to be worthy of release. You decide.

For those new to Monk, easier points of entry might be the albums “Monk's Music,” a 1957 septet album with Coleman Hawkins, Gigi Gryce and John Coltrane on saxes, Wilbur Ware on bass, Ray Copeland on trumpet, and Art Blakey on drums; or “Monk's Dream” with his 1963 ‘classic’ quartet, with Charlie Rouse on sax.

Then again, as with any master composer, one would be hard-pressed to find a genuine dud anywhere in Monk’s output.

To be clear: none of the music on this album is poorly played, and all of it has the unique Monkish stamp deep in its core—which for seasoned Monk devotees in the right circumstances can be sheer heaven, and our reason for breathing.

Although hard to love, for Monk admirers "Thelonious Himself" is soulful and engaging and absolutely essential.

Bert Bailey


1 April in Paris (Harburg-Duke) 3:50

2 (I Don't Stand) A Ghost of a Chance (With You) (Crosby-Washington-Young) 4:24

3 Functional (Thelonious Monk) 9:19

4 I'm Getting Sentimental Over You (Washington-Bassman) 4:03

5 I Should Care (Cahn-Weston-Stordahl) 3:11

6 'Round Midnight (in progress) (B. Hanighen/T. Monk/C. Williams) 21:51

7 ‘Round Midnight (6:40)

8 All Alone (Irving Berlin) 4:50

9 Monk's Mood (Thelonious Monk) 7:53


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