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Thelonious Monk: The Columbia Years (1962-1968)

No sooner had Monk achieved widespread recognition in the early ’60s than the cognoscenti began to grumble that he was in a rut. The principal complaints were that Monk was no longer writing great tunes; that his saxman, Charlie Rouse, wasn’t a genius like former collaborators Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane; and that the pianist was no longer breaking new ground. In retrospect it’s amazing that music as great as that on Monk’s Columbia records was ever taken for granted. Consider the last of these complaints: Monk had taken the single greatest step away from the norm of his time in the history of jazz, far enough to assure being regarded as a charlatan for much of his career, yet he was being castigated for not going further.

As for Rouse, he does get some belated credit for his long and faithful service, but only in general terms. No, he wasn’t a genius but he has to rank high among the great hard-bop tenors a step behind Rollins and Trane-surely the greatest generation of jazz tenormen ever. A listen to Rouse’s fine work with The Jazz Modes reveals the extent to which he tailored his approach when he joined Monk. Think of those descending, arpeggiated, staccato exclamations he would use as seasoning and compare them to Monk’s playing. It was because of Rouse’s careful study that he and the master jibe so beautifully, rhythmically. The harder tone he adopted was likewise perfect for the music, and his solos were consistently inventive and melodic. Complaints about his pitch can go in the same waste bin as similar tin-eared carping about Jackie McLean, Betty Carter and Ornette Coleman. Do people think Monk had Rouse in the band because he told good jokes or something? Rouse was a brilliant interpreter, and his boss knew it.

It is true that Monk’s later recordings include few new compositions. This can also be noted in the last few records he made for Riverside, though he may have slowed down, compositionally, much earlier and taken a long time to record a backlog of older pieces. But even as his repertoire became largely static, his improvisational powers remained at their peak.

Three recent collections from Columbia give us another chance at reevaluation. The three-CD set The Columbia Years is not an easily described item. Several imperatives were at work, like the desire to include both performances generally recognized as outstanding and others that are little known. About half the 32 tracks were on the original LP formats. Several others are taken from anthologies; another four are tracks that first appeared on CD reissues and three more are items restored to their original lengths. There are also six previously unissued tracks. I wouldn’t call any of these earth-shaking enough to warrant buying the set just to have them, but obviously there’s a fair amount of out-of-the-way material here.

The programming seems anomalous: having decided it was desirable to include a balance of live and studio recordings and a variety of instrumental settings, the CDs lump most of each kind of thing together. Thus we proceed from studio quartets to trios to live performances. In view of Peter Keepnews’ observation in his excellent notes that the predominance of quartet recordings for Columbia worked against appreciation of the music, this seems strange. Moreover, no approach is perfect that leads to the inclusion of two tracks from the sessions that gave us Monk’s Blues, the one bad record in a career that produced dozens of great ones. In a just world, Oliver Nelson would have done a prison term for these arrangements. No two people will agree about what else should have been included, but I was glad to see the live “Nutty,” with Pee Wee Russell’s oblique solo, “In Walked Bud,” with Jon Hendricks’ brave vocal, and the live quartet version of “Played Twice.”

The one failing that Monk was guilty of in the ’60s was letting his performing repertoire shrink, though not to the ridiculous degree that Miles managed (with scarcely a word of complaint, comparatively). Monk’s response to criticism about playing the same tunes over and over was that neither the public nor his band had figured out the old ones yet. Anyone who thinks this is just a quip should check out the version of “Epistrophy” on Live in Tokyo. Here is the quartet playing their theme for what must have been at least the hundredth time, with so much fire and inspired joy you would think the tune was being written on the spot-which it was, effectively. The Tokyo set provides powerful evidence that Monk was still capable of jazz of the highest order in the ’60s. The quartet is obviously having a blast as Monk and Rouse keep pushing things to exhilarating new levels.

San Francisco didn’t seem to bring out the best in Monk, apart from the solo record made there when the band didn’t show up. The complete edition of the recordings made at the Jazz Workshop is highly desirable for those of us who feel that another quartet version of “Well, You Needn’t” on what was just an average night is still going to be better than almost any new jazz recording of 2001. But there’s no escaping the fact that Monk’s live work is up and down, and the average listener should grab the Tokyo box and make sure they have the studio Columbia records (except for one) and most of the earlier work before worrying about the Jazz Workshop set. The Columbia Years could serve as an introduction to this rich but still underappreciated period by one of our greatest musicians, and as an addendum for addicts who want to fill in some gaps.

Originally Published