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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.

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