One of the most exciting groups that pianist-composer Thelonious Monk ever led was his 1958 quartet with tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and drummer Roy Haynes. During one night at the Five Spot Cafe they recorded enough music to fill up two CDs; all of the performances are also on Monk's large Riverside box set. In Action, a companion to Misterioso, shows that Griffin was possibly even a more perfect sideman for Monk than John Coltrane had been the year before. Highlights include "Rhythm-A-Ning," "Blue Monk," "Evidence" and "Blues Five Spot."
- Scott Yanow (All Music Guide)
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This album captures the exciting core of an evening's performance by a unique jazz group at an unusual club. The group is unique simply because any jazz unit led and molded by Thelonious Monk deserves that adjective; the club is unusual because, as a casual bar deep down on New York's East Side, it contrasts sharply with the formal chicness or the alternative high-pressure pseudo-hipness of most of today's jazz spots.
And, when future jazz histories are written, the combination of Monk and the Five Spot play go down as one of the important legends and landmarks. For it was ir this club that Thelonious spent the vast bulk of his working hours during 1957 and '58, years in which the critics and the jazz public seemed finally to be making themselves fully aware of the vast significance of Monk's role in jazz and also of the great vitality and sheer enjoyment value of his writing and playing. There have been, in the past, various kinds of important associations between men and places in jazz: King Oliver and Chicago's Lincoln Gardens, where Louis Armstrong first joined him; Benny Goodman and the Paramount Theater in New York, where the dancing in the aisles first heralded the coming of tlie Swing craze. For modem jazz as a whole, there are key place-names already: Minton's Playhouse, in Harlem, where Monk and Gillespie and others first formulated "bop;" and 52nd Street, where it was first exposed to the public. Thus, the Five Spot association comes along relatively late in Monk's career and in the life of modem jazz; but the fact is that Thelonious for years operated in an unwarranted semi-obscurity, built in part out of the genuine complexity and difficulty of his music, and in part out of the way run-away press-agentry and rumor had exaggerated his "mad genius" aspects. And surely all this was compounded by the relative infrequency of his public performances. Then, in the Summer of 1957, when the success of certain recent recordings (most notably Brilliant Comers-RLP 12-226) had begun to tear at this veil somewhat, a Monk Quartet opened at the Five Spot.
The crowds came, often to the point where the small club had to turn them away at the door; and they came again and again. There is no denying, also, that the experience of working before enthusiastic crowds and their immediate reactions was of value to Monk: any artist seeks to communicate, and here was communication (by a musician often accused of not being able to reach any but the most limited audience) being swiftly and constantly proved, night after night.
Thelonious worked the rest of the year at the Five Spot, then took a breather, but was brought back in late Spring of '58. The crowds and their enthusiasm were as great, or greater. The group, however, was changed. The original quartet, with John Coltrane on tenor; Wilbur Ware, baas; Shadow Wilson, drums) had never been recorded as a unit because of various complications (largely contractual), a drastic oversight that it is hoped may someday be remedied. The present group is of course not the same, nor does it sound the same, nor could it. Monk himself is a constantly changing artist; also, he is amazingly sensitive to the nature of the men he works with. To a large degree, Thelonious molds any group he leads into his pattern; but it is important to recognize that the pattern he builds for a particular group comprehends and utilizes the specific values of the men with him. Aside from the basic fact that both are modern tenor men of outstanding talents, Johnny Griffin and John Coltrane are not the same man, and Monk is fully aware of this. Whether a particular listener likes one or the other "better" is quite beside the point; the point is that this group is the Monk quartet with Griffin, and its approach, style and even repertoire (all within the overall Monk pattern) clearly show that. This is true not only in the two recent Monk compositions, recorded here for the first time (Coming on the Hudson and Light Blue) but also in the new shapings of such older selections as Evidence and Blue Monk.
It is important, in listening to an "old" Monk tune, to recognize that he is constantly rebuilding and reusing this material. It is really fully comparable to another musician's making a new arrangement of an old standard because he still likes its basic melody and structure, but wants to use it as a vessel for newer ideas. The only difference is that Monk, taking advantage of the fact that Thelonious today is not identical with Thelonious of ten years ago, often uses his own material as such a vessel. (Actually, the album Monk's Afttric-RLP 12-242, featuring expanded scorings of Monk classics, was built around precisely this concept.)
This is the first time that Thelonious has been recorded "live," out of the studio. Perhaps the most immediately apparent difference is that Monk on the job seems more interested in himself as a pianist, as a performer, as (and this is very much a part of this artist) a showman. There is also, of course, the give-and-take of audience reaction: applause, conversation, the comings and goings of a typical Five Spot crowd (made up in varying percentages of neo-Bohemian types who live nearby, musicians, jazz fans, the merely curious-and those who manage to combine more than one of these categories).
Each side of this LP offers a full band set exactly as played, concluding-as is the case with almost every set the group does-with a brief statement of Epistrophy as a closing theme.
- Orrin Keepnews.
These liner notes appeared on the original analog release and thus reflect the critical attitudes and technical realities of that time.
The original Thelonious in Action album, made up of the first seven selections here, was recorded on the night of August 7, 1958. A month earlier (on July 9), the same quartet had been taped at the Five Spot; Monk and I had been less than satisfied with the results and they were set aside, but many years later I decided that at least some of the material deserved to be heard. Three of those numbers have been added here. On the original album, each side ended (like every Monk set in a club) with a touch of his theme, "Epistrophy"-in keeping with that, it is used again to conclude this Compact Disc.
Thelonious frequently opened a set with a solo piano piece. But friends, musicians, and obscure-tune experts all remain unable to identify this particular one. The three "bonus" tracks were first issued on the album Blues Five Spot (Milestone MSP-9024) and were also included in the boxed set, Thelonious Monk: The Complete Riverside Recordings (Ft-022).