This odd, frayed, faded document, newly unearthed, may make you cry, sometimes from heartbreak, sometimes from joy.
Thelonious Monk was only 52 in 1969, and had another 12 years to live. But in terms of his artistic life, he was near the end. At the Salle Pleyel in Paris, on Dec. 15, 1969, the flame of his creativity still burned, even if it was like a candle in the wind.
The liner notes to this CD/DVD set are drawn from Robin D.G. Kelley’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, one of the great jazz biographies. Kelley places this Paris concert in context, at the end of a hard year in Monk’s life. His physical and mental health had begun to fail; he had medical bills he could not pay; his rhythm section had quit; his record label, Columbia, was about to drop him. Tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, Monk’s musical alter ego for 11 years, had one foot out the door. He gave notice immediately after the Paris concert, finally fed up with Monk’s moodiness and erratic behavior.
The monophonic sound of the CD is superior to the DVD. But it is the DVD, with its foggy black-and-white film of the concert, that takes you back, into the shadows of history thought lost. Inexplicably, Monk had hired two unknown musicians for this European tour, Nate Hygelund (a competent, unremarkable bassist) and Paris Wright (a 17-year-old student drummer with an awkward way of holding his sticks). It is disconcerting to see Monk in their company. It is more affecting to see how old he looks at 52, slowly lumbering to and from the piano, sweating, staring, sometimes wincing as if in pain. As for Rouse, he looks bored.
But Kelley is correct that the film is “the most important visual record we have of the mature Thelonious Monk.” On Dec. 15, 1969, in spite of all, the music prevails. Even on auto-pilot, Rouse could snap your head back with the theme of “I Mean You.” “Ruby, My Dear” seems to focus Rouse’s attention. He marks it out carefully, his full weight on every bar. Monk stabs and clangs the melody. “Ruby, My Dear,” that strange, courtly love song, hangs in the air of this Paris night, stark and profound.
It is a charged moment when Philly Joe Jones walks out onstage and takes over the drum chair and blows up “Nutty.” He is barely recognizable, with hollow cheeks and missing front teeth. But his tense, dramatic solo is unmistakable, and so are his polyrhythms that give Monk new juice.
Monk’s three solo pieces are nine minutes for the ages. Haltingly, he blocks out “Crepuscule With Nellie.” Each phrase hovers before it drops heavily into place. You can see on his face how intensely he has to concentrate over each hard-fought note. “Nellie” ends with a sweat-drenched, ringing tremolo. The melancholy is devastating. “Don’t Blame Me” feels chiseled from granite, in fierce blows. (The critic Whitney Balliett once referred to Monk’s “great Gothic style.”) It is like a final summation to the jury. Don’t blame Monk. Don’t blame anyone. Life is short and hard.
In 1976 Monk, a recluse for years by then, heard a radio broadcast. The commentator referred to his “wrong piano notes.” Monk called the station and left a message on the switchboard: “Tell your guy on the air the piano ain’t got no wrong notes.” The last solo piece is “I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams,” a minute and a half and vast. It is a message left for all of us. The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.