THELONIOUS MONK Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall (Mosaic/Thelonious) 

With the saxophonist’s brief membership of the pianist’s quartet barely documented, the discovery of this 1957 Voice of America concert recording amongst the Library of Congress archives in 2005 was likened by Newsweek to the “musical equivalent of the discovery of a new Mount Everest”. Certainly, the lineup of this benefit event for Harlem’s Morningside Community Center is earwatering enough to make you wish the rest of the evening would also reveal itself on tape: Monk aside, the poster promises two sets apiece from Billy Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Sonny Rollins and Chet Baker with Zoot Sims.

Nevertheless, we should be grateful that Monk’s performances, at least, have surfaced: well, most of them, at least, the final track of the second set appearing in incomplete form, with no discussion in the otherwise startlingly comprehensive, learned sleevenotes about what else might have been lost.

Monk’s tangled melodies are as inscrutable as their titles; not avant garde, exactly, but certainly veering towards the difficult shore of the mainstream. It’s the kind of music that, ahem, repays study, but not the kind you’d find yourself whistling very often. The aptly titled “Evidence” is as good an example as any here, with its twisted, spidery tune that Coltrane’s solos at least attempt, not totally successfully, to normalise into conventional hard bop. On “Crepuscule With Nellie” Monk gets impossibly intricate, as if he couldn’t move his music around in a manner the listener might expect of it even if he tried, his solo during “Epistrophy” showers down cascading waterfalls of notes and he scuttles through “Bye-Ya” with impish mischievousness.  The standard “Sweet And Lovely” is the most, perhaps only, immediately familiar tune here, although Monk nevertheless stretches it over a framework of his own design, humming nasally all the while, like a slo-mo Erroll Garner – at least until the tempo doubles for Coltrane’s fiery solo.

Happily, this historically significant recording has been handled with exemplary care on vinyl. This is no dubious, European copyright loophole-exploiting product from an anonymous source. Mosaic have long been respected for their curatorial efforts on behalf of America’s jazz legacy, and this album arrives on flawlessly-pressed plastic in a chunky gatefold sleeve. Some companies might have spread the performances over two discs, the two 26-minute sides here being longer than sonically ideal, but fortunately it sounds as fabulous as it deserves to.

THELONIOUS MONK Brilliant Corners (Doxy)

On this 1957 album Monk’s melodic abundance is given full reign. With a hand or two in four of the album’s five compositions, Monk’s long, flowing melodic lines seem to be about twice as twisty-turny as anybody else’s in jazz, none more so than the title track which required over a dozen takes to complete. As with the works of Andrew Hill, this is music that can seem simple when half-heard by a distracted ear yet is fiendishly complex close up, its jagged shuffle of time signatures sometimes suggesting a timestretched Captain Beefheart. As producer Orin Keepnews’ sleevenotes suggest, “Monk and his music demands the most difficult thing any artist can require of his audience – attention”. No matter how complex the music becomes, though, a stellar ensemble that includes Sonny Rollins, Max Roach and Paul Chambers keeps these tongue-twisting rhythms on track.

Surprisingly, given that it’s the work of grey area public domain specialists Doxy and Czech pressing plant GZ Vinyl, this fresh reissue of “Brilliant Corners” actually sounds pretty good. It’s no audiophile delight, but there’s lots of music and little to distract from it. Perhaps more by luck than judgement, Doxy seem to have found a good sounding CD (or maybe even SACD) to rip it off from. 

THELONIOUS MONK Monk’s Music (Jazz Wax)

This record, recorded in a single June 1957 day, finds the usually esoteric pianist at his most approachable. The complex melodic filigree of compositions such as “Brilliant Corners” is absented here in favour of tunes you can whistle without a conservatoire education. None more so than the opening arrangement of the hymn “Abide With Me”; played only by the septet’s horn section in a spare 55 seconds, it sounds like the work of the world’s most proficient Salvation Army band. Familiar from Miles Davis’ many interpretations, “Well You Needn’t” contains one of the most exhilarating moments in jazz when Monk calls out “Coltrane! Coltrane!” in one speaker a split-second before an explosion of tenor sax from the other. (Jazz Wax’s reissue of “Monk’s Music” is presented in stereo…and how!...except for the one bonus track, and “Crepuscule With Nellie”, which either suddenly contracts into mono or all the instruments were especially piled into the centre of the studio ahead of its taping.) That bonus track is an alternate version of “Ruby, My Dear” starring Coltrane, which follows the album take that featured Coleman Hawkins, its compare-and-contrast sequencing  possibly of more interest to musicologists than the general listerneship. A long, solo-strewn blast through “Epistrophy” is almost halfway to a big band performance, given the density and heft of the horns. All in all, this is the most ingratiating of the few Thelonious Monk albums I’ve heard so far, and in containing new interpretations of a handful of his most celebrated compositions, an ideal gateway disc into the harder aspects of the man’s discography.

Jazz Wax’s vinyl reissue of “Monk’s Music” is another of those records that gives the shady grey area of public domain exploitation something of a good name. Admittedly it’s plagued by a frostiness that suggests the source was closer to a cheap CD player than an analogue master tape, but it’s clean, clear and well-pressed, not things that can be taken for granted with modern day vinyl. The logos on the back cover, which boast of Direct Metal Mastering and the mysterious “Original George Neumann Cutting System”, are identical to those found on Wax Time’s equally quite good reissue of Gerry Mulligan’s “What Is There To Say?”, suggesting both labels are run by the same mysterious, anonymous organisation.

THELONIOUS MONK Thelonious Alone In San Francisco (Doxy)

As its title suggests, this is nothing but Monk and a piano, recorded over two days in a San Franciscan meeting hall in October 1959. There’s no noise on this album that isn’t made by him, and, given the sparseness of the instrumentation it throws all the incidental sounds accompanying the making of music into relief, those which would be glossed over or obscured by the noise of a larger organisation, such as Monk humming, singing and mumbling to himself and the creaks, clanks and thumps of his instrument.

The arrangements strip Monk’s music bare, almost like the aural equivalents of x-rays. Just like x-rays, though, there’s nothing to insulate or cosset the listener from the bony, elbows-akimbo angularity of these spidery, scampering melodies, making “Thelonious Alone In San Francisco” a more specialised entertainment than his ensemble albums, and perhaps as strong a medicine for most as it is for me.

Doxy’s public domain loophole-exploiting vinyl reissue, following hard on the heels of their not-bad “Brilliant Corners”, is good up to a point, that point being the distance through each side where a rasp of distortion begins to accompany Monk’s more aggressive attacks on the ivories. So near, yet sadly so far.