2 LP on 1 CD
## 1 - 8 'Plays Duke Ellington' 1955 Riverside/OJC (4.5*)
For Thelonious Monk's Riverside debut, producer Orrin Keepnews decided that it would be best to make the somewhat forbidding pianist-composer seem a bit more accessible to the jazz world. Rather than have Monk play his own complex originals, this time around the pianist (in a trio with bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Kenny Clarke) interpreted eight Duke Ellington compositions. The results are very interesting with Monk bringing out new angles and ideas to such songs as "Mood Indigo," "Caravan," "It Don't Mean a Thing" and "Sophisticated Lady." A special highlight is an eerie investigation of "Black and Tan Fantasy." This CD reissue (whose music is also on Thelonious Monk's huge Riverside box) is recommended.
- Scott Yanow (All Music Guide)
## 9 - 15 - 'The Unique Thelonious Monk' 1956 (4)
The second recording that pianist-composer Thelonious Monk made for Riverside (reissued on CD in the Original Jazz Classics series) was a standards session. With the assistance of bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Art Blakey (and at the assistance of producer Orrin Keepnews), Monk explores seven veteran standards, some of which (such as "Liza," "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Just You, Just Me") would occasionally pop up in his repertoire in the future. Monk makes these tunes (which also include "Memories of You," "Darn That Dream," "Tea for Two" and "You Are Too Beautiful") sound fresh and unusual.
- Scott Yanow (All Music Guide)
========= from the cover ==========
This unusual and remarkable album, recorded in 1955, was, at the time, a "first" in several ways. It was the first twelve-inch contemporary jazz LP issued by Riverside - making it a very suitable starting point for what has become a distinguished list of jazz albums. It was also the first of several highly significant and widely appreciated LPs recorded for Riverside by Thelonious Monk. Lastly, it was planned as the start of a campaign that has long since been won: a campaign to overcome the fears of those who had previously made the mistake of feeling that Monk was "too difficult" and "too far out" for them. To bring him to the attention of this broad audience seemed doubly desirable: it would bring pleasure and rewarding musical stimulation to many previously self-depriving listeners: and it could help gain for Monk the broad and deep credit and acceptance that he deserved as one of the true creative giants of jazz.
Plays Duke Ellington
This album, in which Thelonious for the first time offered a program entirely made up of standard material, appeared at first to leave some reviewers a bit confused and discomforted-perhaps because they were unable to adjust their stereotypes of Monk as a "mad genius" to conform with the reality of his ability to interpret the works of another composer inventively, lucidly and with respect. Actually, the premise of the LP was simple enough. It derived from a conviction that a good part of the problem of the jazz artist who (as was at that time the case with Monk) is considered excessively "far out" is tied in with the playing of material that is unfamiliar to the 'average' ear. This is not to deny the vast importance of original compositions in jazz creativity. But it can be extremely helpful to know the precise structural and melodic starling point for a musician's improvisations. Communication between performer and audience is, after all, rather important; and to perhaps more listeners than might care to admit it out loud, the initial identification of knowing the tune can turn out to be at least half the battle.
To give this LP a certain unity of mood, and to insure worthwhile material for Monk to work with, it was suggested that the standard compositions he'd stick to be selected from the works of Duke Ellington, himself a major force for a quarter-century, and certainly a man for whose achievements most jazz modernists have more than a little respect. Thelonious readily approved the whole idea. He retired briefly with a small mountain of Ellington sheet music; in due course he reported himself ready for action; and thus this LP was born.
Although Monk surely remains his usual unfettered musical self here, he has not made the mistake of treating Duke's compositions merely as vehicles. They have too much character and strength for that: they serve in each case to suggest a logical direction for Monk to travel. Thus, for example. Black and Tan is fittingly treated as a funky blues, Caravan becomes a weird flight of fancy, and Solitude-played as an unaccompanied piano solo- is a mood-piece of almost painful poignancy.
Thelonious is aided to no small degree by two exceptionally gifted associates. Oscar Pettiford is among the finest bass players around today; he has probably done shape the modern bass style. Kenny Clarke worked with Monk in the house band at Minion's during the early-1940s days when bop was first developing: he deserves to be ranked near Thelonious, Bird and Dizzy among the basic formulators of modern jazz, and he remains high on anyone's list of top drummers. These three men begin with the decided advantage of knowing each other and each other's music so well that fitting together is almost a matter of instinct. With such support, and with the rich fullness of Ellington's music to work from. Thelonious is able to display at their best his distinctive and remarkable attributes: a firm, swinging beat: a spare, precise, yet actually highly lyrical approach; flashes of sardonic humor: and an unequalled flair for unexpected but thoroughly logical improvisation.
"Thelonious Monk plays Duke Ellington" has proved to be a pioneering album. Its significance has by now been recognized, and over the next few years several succeeding LPs (offering Monk's treatments both of standards and of his own brilliant originals) met with ever-increasing success and near-unanimous acclaim. Also, Thelonious' increasing frequent appearances at concerts, festivals and night clubs helped bring him more and more firmly to the fore. By the Summer of 1958 (to pick out a specific reference point), Monk was drawing record-breaking crowds in his second lengthy stay at New York's Five Spot Cafe, and his resurgence had even gone so far as to captivate that formerly skeptical group known as "the critics"-he had won out over Erroll Garner as top-rated pianist in the 1958 Down Beat Critics' Poll.
Such happenings have led us at Riverside to recognize that Monk's audience-which is a still-widening one- has clearly become many times broader than it was when this album was first issued. With this new audience in mind, we have now repackaged these eight classic Monk performances-using as the cover a reproduction of "The Repast of the Lion," a striking painting by the French "primitive" modernist Henri Rousseau.
There could never be any such thing as an "ordinary" THELONIOUS MONK recording. Any musical creation by this uniquely talented artist is bound to be distinctive and unusual; but this particular LP is unusual even among Monk albums. It is distinguished from most other recordings by Thelonious by its choice of repertoire, for on this occasion Monk has concerned himself exclusively with "standards"-popular tunes that have demonstrated sturdiness and above-average quality by remaining popular for a good many years. These are decidedly personal interpretations, strongly colored by Monk's highly individual approach and ideas. But the starting point in each case is a familiar melody.
Most of Monk's recorded work places the emphasis on the pianist's own compositions, which happen to be among the richest and most inventive examples of modern jazz writing. But this does not mean that he feels that there is any disadvantage to performing other men's music. Thelonious is highly capable of working with the material furnished by the standard pop composers. More than that, he can enjoy (as some jazz artists do, and others do not) the challenge this can present. Furthermore, since Monk has always been considered "far out," and a difficult artist for many listeners to grasp fully, this choice of "standards" material becomes specially interesting. For it makes it possible to put into operation a theory that the likelihood of communication is greatly increased if the listener can start from a firm, familiar position. You know the tune of "Liza," or "Honeysuckle Rose," as well as Monk does. So everyone at least begins even. Thelonious can never be made to seem too "easy"; he is a forthright and uncompromising creative artist whose style and concepts remain non-conventional even by the standards of today's jazz. He is not easy; but neither is he a mystical or perverse wanderer in a private universe. And wben the point of origin from which he moves on out into the areas of his improvisation is clearly known, it should be a lot easier for listeners to feel more comfortably at ease with the results.
So this album is concerned with well-known songs by some pretty fair craftsmen: George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Fats Waller, Vincent Youmans. The choice of repertoire is Monk's, and in just about all cases he has also chosen to take advantage of the roominess of the LP, giving himself time to develop and expand some very intriguing ideas. On such often-played selections as "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Tea for Two," his wry and insidious sense of humor makes itself evident, sharply and sometimes rather devastatingly. "Tea for Two" is a tune with potentialities of monotony that have trapped more than a few musicians; but Monk turns its repetitious line into a remarkable exercise in cumulative power. "Memories of You," played unaccompanied, becomes a mood-piece of almost overwhelming tenderness. "Liza" is taken at full-speed-ahead pace; "Just You, Just Me" is the starting point for rich, varied exploration in a swinging medium tempo. The remaining two are introspective ballads, with perhaps a touch of tongue in cheek here and there.
When this material was initially recorded, in 1956, the use of such numbers was partly motivated by a feeling that it would help bring Monk to the attention of listeners who had previously been rather frightened by his reputation as a forbiddingly strange musician. Since that time, the notable success of several of his LPs, plus the impact of his personal appearances in clubs and at concerts, have just about removed such unwarranted fears. At this writing (early 1959), critics and fans alike have achieved a substantial, and steadily-increasing, appreciation of the unique talents of Thelonious. As examples, note his choice as first among pianists in the 1958 Down Beat Critics Poll, and as second (scant three votes behind Erroll Garner) in the same magazine's Readers Poll of the same year.
But even though time has eliminated any need for worrying about making Monk more "acceptable," it has not made this album any the less effective. This is, after all, Monk in top form: swinging, lyrical, provocative, well able to stand the test of time. Thus it seemed appropriate to us to celebrate the "new" status of Monk by offering this lastingly valuable and enjoyable LP-now repackaged with a striking new album cover-for the particular attention of the very large and still growing group of more recent Thelonious Monk enthusiasts.
Monk has enjoyed the respect and admiration of a very substantial number of musicians ever since he first made his presence felt as a principal shaper of modern music, back in his early-1940s days of experimentation with Gillespie and Parker at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. Consequently, he has never had to settle for working with anything less than the best jazz artists. It's hardly news that Oscar Pettiford and Art Blakey are among the best you could hope to find today on their respective instruments. Both are outstandingly talented soloists, as well as superb accompanists. They were Monk's choice for these dates; and it's quite clear that, as always, they were enthusiastic about working with him. Both have a deep-seated understanding of Monk's music, so that they join with him here in a cohesive and consistently creative unity. Of their individual efforts, perhaps most notable are Pettiford's handling of the melodic line on the verse to "Tea for Two" and Blakey's surging solo on "Just You, Just Me."
- Orrin Keepnews