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Thelonious Monk: The Complete Prestige Recordings

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Most of the attention given to Monk’s records goes to the volumes of great work done for Riverside and Columbia, or to the trail-blazing Blue Note sides. Some of us also have a soft spot for the beautiful coda Alfred Lion provided with the Black Lion 1971 recordings, and the solo date recorded in Paris in 1954 is often singled out as a masterpiece.

The Prestige recordings, which date from the same period (Monk in fact played hooky from his Prestige contract for the French date), are generally overlooked, but this reissue should help rectify that situation. Included are all of Monk’s appearances for the label as a sideman, which might miff collectors who already own some of the other material, but then nothing here is new to CD anyway-though the excellent notes by Peter Keepnews are a strong attraction on their own. Keepnews mixes in more entertaining anecdotes and incisive commentary about his subject than some jazz biographers seem able to manage in whole books.

The earliest recordings here are four Coleman Hawkins tracks from 1944, which were Monk’s debut on disc. Every aspect of his style is already defined on these sides, which also feature great work by the leader. The last are from the famous (and infamous) Miles Davis all-star session at which Monk was asked by the leader not to back his solos, a legendary episode that Keepnews writes about at some length. Whatever the real story, the resulting music comes off as a series of spectacular but almost unrelated solos.

The real meat here comes from the LPs The Thelonious Monk Trio (actually, two trios) and The Thelonious Monk Quintet (two quintets, of course). The first features Percy Heath or Gary Mapp and Art Blakey or Max Roach. Blakey never played better than he did with Monk. His rock-solid swing seems to correspond perfectly to the groove the pianist implies but seldom states. There are some real classics here, including first performances of “Bye-Ya,” “Trinkle, Tinkle” and “Blue Monk.”

The quintet session that brought Frank Foster together with Monk has always been a personal favorite. The setting of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is just delicious, and Foster shows that he’s a heavyweight among tenormen, as he always did when he had the chance (as on the meeting with Elmo Hope). Like most listeners, I have always found the “Friday the Thirteenth” quintet date with Sonny Rollins and Julius Watkins to be disappointing. The pity is that Watkins never had another high-profile opportunity to show what he could do with the French horn. On the other hand, I disagree with Keepnews’ assessment of the other Monk-Rollins collaborations here as being solid but not extraordinary. The rapport between the two men approaches ESP on “I Want to Be Happy” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” and “More Than You Know” is a masterpiece. It’s very understated Monk, and quite long, but several musicians, including Evan Parker, have named it as a favorite performance.

Left to his own devices, Monk was incapable of making inferior records, which leaves the listener to choose between good, great and overwhelming records. Let’s call this set about 15% good, 60% great and 25% overwhelming.