The back story makes this album irresistible even before you’ve listened to it: In 1968, a 16-year-old jazz fan at Palo Alto High School in California decides to hold a concert in the school’s auditorium to raise funds for its International Club—and convinces Thelonious Monk’s manager that his client should be the headliner. (Not surprisingly, the student, Danny Scher, would soon become a major force in the live-music production world.) As concert day approaches, one of the school’s janitors, an audio enthusiast, offers to tune the piano in exchange for recording the show, a deal that’s quickly agreed to. On the afternoon of October 27, the Thelonious Monk Quartet gives its only known high-school performance. Afterward, the janitor (his name apparently lost to history, though researchers are no doubt still working on that) hands the young promoter a tape. It goes in a box, where it sits for the next 50 years. When its owner rediscovers it, he contacts Monk’s son T.S., who—first tickled by the story, then impressed by the recording’s quality—sanctions its release.
All praise be to that anonymous janitor. Palo Alto’s sound quality may not be absolutely optimal, but its clarity is astounding. You can hear everything, from the creaks of the piano bench to the quiet, regular swish of Ben Riley’s hi-hat on “Ruby, My Dear”—and it’s even in stereo. There are no big surprises here in terms of material: four Monk evergreens (“Well, You Needn’t,” “Blue Monk,” and “Epistrophy” in addition to “Ruby”) and typically jagged solo rollicks through “Don’t Blame Me” and “I Love You (Sweetheart of All My Dreams).” Even so, this is one of the best live Monk recordings available, maybe even the best, and certainly the best by this band.
Which brings us to a key point: Monk is known for his compositions, his piano style, and his personal idiosyncrasies. He’s not known so much as a bandleader. But Palo Alto should add ammunition to the arsenal of those who believe his 1964-’68 quartet wasn’t just a great vehicle for his tunes but a superlative band in its own right. Riley, bassist Larry Gales, and saxophonist Charlie Rouse truly understood Monk’s music, and Monk himself, on a basic emotional level in ways that few others did—yes, more than Trane, more than Sonny, more than Blakey—and that’s clear in every note they play here.
As is the utter joy that Monk and his men take in performing for their young audience. More than five decades since it was recorded, this music simply bounces out of the speakers, the spring in its step only heightened by time.