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October 1998

Thelonious Monk
Monk Alone: The Complete Columbia Solo Studio Recordings: 1962-1968
Columbia Jazz

This collection gathers together 14 previously unissued performances and 23 tracks from eight of Monk's Columbia albums. It is an essential item for anyone seeking to fathom the nature of thematic improvisation. The time is long past when serious students of the music, and particularly of jazz piano, could dismiss Monk's playing without shortchanging their understanding. Monk's way of piano improvisation was unyielding in its independence and unorthodoxy, qualities central to the spirit of jazz. At the same time, it was an extension of the tradition he inherited from James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Count Basie, whose stride mastery he studied when he was learning his art.

In the booklet that accompanies Monk Alone, pianist Dick Katz clearly and beautifully explains all of that and more about Monk's musicality. Nothing, however, brings it home to the listener like opening up to Monk as, with deliberation, he transmits his thoughts through his fingertips. He claimed, with some indignation, not to be a bebop pianist. Indeed, he was not. There is no fleetness here, no facile negotiation of chord patterns, no grandstanding, showmanship or bravura. There is emotion, wryness, wit, purity of rhythm, deep vision into the nature of chords and reverence for melody.

Monk's interior rhythms in "Ask Me Now" affirm that it is rhythm that sets jazz apart from other music. He proves the point in another way in the irresistible swing of his blues called "Monk's Point," and again in both takes of "Dinah." The four versions of "Everything Happens to Me" add up to instruction in the meaning of thematic improvisation. Lessons abound here.

Putting aside all of that seriousness about Monk's importance, I will mention one more of the many reasons to hear these solo pieces again and again: They are one hell of a lot of fun.

Originally published in October 1998
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