Originally created 10/11/05

Review: Thelonious Monk Quartet

Even though this recording dates back nearly half a century, for jazz fans it's the year's most important new release - the equivalent of finding a Rembrandt masterpiece hidden away in a cluttered attic. Its release comes just months after Larry Appelbaum, a supervisor and jazz specialist at the Library of Congress, discovered a set of tapes labeled "sp. Event 11/29/57 carnegie jazz concert (.1)," including one marked "T. Monk," while in the process of digitally preserving the Library's huge collection of Voice of America recordings.

The tape just happened to be the only full-length professional recording known to exist of pianist Thelonious Monk's short-lived but historically significant quartet with saxophonist John Coltrane. Until now, the group could only be heard on three studio-recorded tracks from the start of their collaboration when Coltrane was still struggling to master Monk's quirky compositions, and an amateur live recording made by Coltrane's wife during a one-night reunion at the Five Spot Cafe in lower Manhattan in 1958. So this "Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall" CD offers the first chance to hear this group at its peak under optimal recording conditions.

The recording's importance is enhanced by the fact that it dates to 1957 - a turning point in the careers of both jazz legends. For Monk, who had finally regained the cabaret license he had lost after a dubious drug bust in 1951, his stint with Coltrane at the Five Spot was his first extended nightclub gig outside Harlem and helped transform him from an obscure cult figure revered by fellow musicians into a jazz HEAD:r who would go on to be signed by Columbia Records and grace the cover of Time magazine.

Coltrane had hit a low point in his career in April 1957 when Miles Davis fired him from his band because of his unreliability caused by a heroin habit. But Coltrane then kicked his drug and alcohol addictions before teaming up with Monk. With Monk as his musical guru, Coltrane experienced the start of a spiritual awakening that would result in his recording his first albums as a leader that year, rejoining Davis from 1958-60 to record the classic "Kind of Blue" album, and then forming his own classic quartet that reshaped jazz with such recordings as "A Love Supreme."

The seeds of Coltrane's later greatness are clearly ready to sprout in the Carnegie Hall concert where the quartet is rounded out by bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and drummer Shadow Wilson. Under Monk's constant prodding, the tenor saxophonist stretches out in extended solos, including his signature cascading "sheets of sound" runs, on such challenging tunes from Monk's repertoire as "Evidence, "Bye-ya" and "Epistrophy" and on the one non-Monk tune, "Sweet and Lovely," which is transformed by shifting rhythms. Monk, whose reputation as a pianist has been obscured by his stature as a composer, plays some of his most virtuosic piano here, particularly on the opening ballad "Monk's Mood," an exquisite duet in which he accompanies the saxophonist with rich arpeggios. Perhaps Coltrane's most soulful and stirring performance comes on "Blue Monk" where in chorus after chorus he plumbs the depth of the blues.

But this CD is no mere museum piece - the music remains fresh and compelling for today's listeners nearly 50 years after these two giants of modern jazz crossed paths.


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