Thelonious Monk: Lost Liaison

Inside the Forgotten 1959 Studio Session

Thelonious Monk (photo courtesy of Arnaud Boubet/Private Collection)
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Thelonious Monk (right) with French producer Marcel Romano (photo courtesy of Arnaud Boubet/Private Collection)
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Thelonious Monk with his wife, Nellie, and his patron, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter (from left) in 1959 (photo courtesy of Arnaud Boubet/Private Collection)
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Monk, Romano, Charlie Rouse, Sam Jones, Art Taylor and the French tenorman Barney Wilen in the studio (photo courtesy Arnaud Boubet/Private Collection)
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Poster for Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 (image courtesy of Fred Thomas/Private Collection)
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Over the past few years especially, new releases by contemporary jazz musicians have had to vie for attention with recently discovered, decades-old recordings by some of their legendary (and long-deceased) forebears. Among the most notable examples of such “lost albums” are John Coltrane’s Offering: Live at Temple University, a searing 1966 performance by the saxophonist, taped just months before his death; and the aptly titled Some Other Time: The Lost Session From the Black Forest, a radiant standards-centric Bill Evans studio session captured in ’68.

Both of these recordings were brought to light by Los Angeles-based Resonance Records. Not surprisingly, when the founders of two French reissue labels unearthed boxes of audiotape that had been gathering dust for over half a century in the archive of a Paris-based jazz insider, they turned to Resonance’s Executive VP and General Manager, Zev Feldman, to collaborate on the launch of their own rare relic.

As Feldman soon learned, the tapes his colleagues had discovered contained the soundtrack for a provocative film by a notorious French director, performed by one of the seminal figures in modern jazz. No wonder Feldman told JT that working on the project was “one of the greatest experiences of my career.”

In August 1958, Thelonious Monk’s manager, Harry Colomby, received an unexpected inquiry that promised to be the capstone of a transformative year in the life of the pianist and composer: “INTERESTED IN THELONIOUS MONK MUSIC. STOP. FOR MOVIE …” It had been just 13 short months since Monk opened at New York’s Five Spot Café, bringing to an end a tragic seven-year absence from the New York jazz scene and kicking off one of the most dramatic comebacks in jazz history.

The telegram offering Monk this exciting opportunity was signed “Marcel Romano.” As the music director of the hip Paris nightspot Club Saint-Germain, Romano was uniquely plugged into the French jazz scene. And since the club had also become a magnet for the local culturati, Romano found himself at the nexus of a network of young writers, artists and filmmakers who were inspired by the spontaneity of modern jazz. In fact, Romano had already served as music director for a couple of movies boasting soundtracks by American jazz musicians, including Miles Davis, who improvised a haunting score for Louis Malle’s stylish 1958 heist film, Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows).

This time, it was 30-year-old New Wave director Roger Vadim who’d hired Romano to organize the music for his latest project, Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960. The film would be an adaptation of the 18th-century epistolary novel, transposing the original story about the amoral intrigues of the French aristocracy into the decadent lifestyle of Paris’ midcentury jetsetters. It was a world that Vadim, like so many of his cinematic cohorts on both sides of the Atlantic, had come to associate with modern jazz.

Romano had established a rapport with Monk during the 1954 Salon du Jazz, the Paris jazz festival at which the pianist made his first European appearance.  After eagerly accepting the offer for Monk, Colomby put together a fall European tour that included a stopover in Paris. The tour never got off the ground (nor did another that was scheduled for the following spring), but by the summer of 1959, Vadim had completed shooting and editing his film, and Romano made what he hoped would be a quick trip to New York to record the music. But as the weeks passed, Monk—who would eventually be diagnosed with bipolar disorder—remained mired in one of his extended periods of depression. With time running out for a scheduled September release, Romano arranged a private screening for Thelonious, his wife, Nellie, and his patron, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter (a.k.a. Nica).

A few nights later, on July 27, 1959, Monk and his band finally assembled at Nola Penthouse Sound Studios in Midtown Manhattan, contracts signed and ready to record. He had been given the better part of a year to come up with original music for Vadim’s film, yet he entered the studio without a single new composition.

While Monk had his share of professional success during this period, including a historic large-ensemble concert at the Town Hall the previous January, it was also a particularly difficult time in the pianist’s personal life. Back in October, while passing through Delaware for a gig, he was arrested—over a small amount of marijuana found in the Baroness’ Bentley—and severely beaten by police. The traumatic effects of the incident landed Monk in the River Crest Sanitarium on Long Island, and once again his cabaret card was revoked.

In April, another breakdown that had begun during his engagement at Boston’s Storyville club ended at Grafton State Hospital, where Monk was administered the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine, the first of many pharmacological interventions he would undergo throughout the rest of his life.

Finally, just as Romano arrived in New York, Monk was shaken by the deaths of the drummer Shadow Wilson (a friend and favorite sideman) and Billie Holiday (whose photo he had mounted above his bed as a young man). As Robin D.G. Kelley describes the situation in his biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, the “[t]wo deaths back to back put Monk in a somber mood, making it difficult to focus on the soundtrack for Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” And yet …

Once Monk sat down at the keyboard, fronting a band of likeminded compatriots delving into his catalog of classic compositions, he seemed incapable of anything less than total commitment to spontaneous creative expression. And as it turned out, the sidemen he’d assembled for the date—a well-honed rhythm section (Sam Jones on bass; Art Taylor on drums) plus saxophonist Charlie Rouse, who had recently completed a rigorous eight-month apprenticeship in Monk’s regular quartet—provided the ideal balance of freshness and mastery of the Monk canon.

Now available for the first time, the album, Thelonious Monk: Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960—a joint release by Saga Music and Sam Records, co-produced by François Lê Xuân and Frédéric Thomas along with Zev Feldman—provides the opportunity for listeners to judge for themselves. Kelley believes that the nearly 60-year-old session provides further evidence of Monk’s astonishing ability to transcend adversity through his art. “Given where Monk was emotionally,” he told JT, “I thought what he produced were really wonderful renditions of his music. Not just rote, but I think he tried to play [the tunes] in a way that was slightly different.”

As was often the case, in good times and bad, both Nellie and Nica were in the studio to provide unconditional love and moral support. And in acknowledgement, Monk recorded the heartfelt ballads he had composed for each of them. Most notably, Vadim would use one of the session’s two complete takes of “Crepuscule With Nellie” to accompany the opening credits of his film. Set against shots of a chessboard in mid-game, the romantic fervor of Monk’s melody serves as an ironic counterpoint to the perverse sexual contest that dominates the film’s plot.

One of the most extensively covered compositions in the Monk catalog, “Pannonica”—written in 1956, early into his three-decade platonic relationship with the Baroness—appears here in two solo versions and two with the quartet. In particular, the intimacy of these rare solo performances embodies the devotion Monk felt for the person he once described as “the best friend I ever had.”

But it was a quartet version of “Pannonica” that wound up in the film, set to a montage of scenes at an idyllic winter getaway, during which the raffish Vicomte de Valmont begins a romance with Marianne, the virtuous young woman destined to be the victim in a battle of wits between Valmont and Juliette de Merteuil, his former lover. Once again, Vadim deploys an expression of idealized love to both underline and undercut the moral corruption of the film’s central plot.

While Monk leaned heavily on tunes from his live performances, Kelley’s liner notes for the album also suggest that “he chose the repertoire based on his understanding of the story, and played around with the tempos in order to capture the character’s emotional state or circumstances.” And he did include a couple of outliers and oddities.

Among these is “Light Blue,” a recent addition to the Monk canon at the time, dominated by a bizarre drum pattern unlike anything else in his body of work; a fascinating 14-minute “making of” version of the tune, pieced together by the album’s producers, traces its evolution from rehearsal to final take. The session’s other solo piano track—titled “Blues” on the 1959 session logs—now appears as “Six in One” (although Kelley believes it’s more likely a preliminary version of “Round Lights,” a blues-based composition Monk would debut a few months later on Riverside’s Thelonious Alone in San Francisco).

Certainly the greatest rarity on the album (and a unique item in Monk’s discography) is the early-20th-century African-American hymn “We’ll Understand It Better, By and By,” composed by Rev. Dr. Charles Albert Tindley. The track opens with Monk’s straightforward reading of the stately composition, shadowed by a ghostly doubling of the melody by Rouse’s tenor saxophone. But by the second chorus, a subtle Monk-ian swing and familiar rhythmic displacements make the piece unmistakably the pianist’s own. (It’s a performance that has one wishing the next “lost” Monk recording would be from the gospel revival shows where he began his professional career.)

Finally, there’s the presence of the 22-year-old French tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen, who joins the band on three tunes. Wilen may have been booked as a gesture to jazz fans in the film’s country of origin, but he brings a youthful buoyancy to the date, and on the notoriously difficult “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-Are,” he follows an impassioned Charlie Rouse solo with a dynamic solo of his own.

While Vadim wove Monk’s music through more than a third of his film, the director also added a couple of soulful hard-bop tracks composed by Duke Jordan and recorded by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, for an official Liaisons soundtrack album released alongside the film. But, as Kelley observed in our interview, it was the transformative power of Monk’s visionary modernism that had “turned what could have been a conventional film into an avant-garde film.” And one that bears watching—and listening to—well over a half-century later.

As is often the case with such top-shelf reissue projects, the release—available on April 22 (Record Store Day) as a double vinyl LP and a month later as a two-CD set—is accompanied by a lavishly produced booklet crammed with candid photos from the sessions, posters and stills from Vadim’s film, a meticulously annotated discography, and lengthy essays by the French jazz writer Alain Tercinet, on the history of the film and soundtrack; Kelley, on the biographical context of the sessions; and the British jazz historian Brian Priestley, on each of the album’s tracks.

Although the project took three years to bring to fruition, Feldman makes no apology for the lengthy gestation. “When you’re dealing with someone like Thelonious Monk,” he explained, “you want everything to be the absolute best it can be.” And with Monk’s centennial fast approaching—he was born on Oct. 10, 1917—this compelling document of a crucial period in the pianist’s notoriously under-recorded career can be considered an early birthday present to his fans.