How much Monk is too much? Jazz fetishists like myself, collectors of all the great and almost-great sessions by the Spheroid One we can find, might think of resisting yet another reissue from his Columbia years — but this one’s simply essential, a master session. And well-meaning elders seeking the ideal set with which to introduce younger fans to the bop keyboard genius of “Pannonica”-land and “Epistrophy”-ville need look no further.
Recorded in May 1963 during Monk’s first visit to Japan, this two-CD, 80-minute-plus concert presents his ultimate quartet (Charlie Rouse, tenor sax; Butch Warren, bass; Frankie Dunlop, drums) at the height of its powers. The rhythm section in particular — whether simmering at that medium-lope that Monk always favored or boiling at any of the slightly brisker paces that qualified as up-tempo — just kicks it. The Warren and Dunlop tag team can pull even a shy, first-time listener right into the fray, as they syncopate, gyrate and percolate beneath some of the sexiest, most irresistible solos Monk and Rouse ever created. Check out the way the rhythm duo picks up from Monk’s intro on “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and, as if on cue from Rouse, launches that old standard into the head-wagging outer reaches of Theloniverse.
By 1963, Monk had finally overcome the “weirdness” label; fans all over the world knew his amazing book of tunes at the drop of a downbeat (nine of the 11 cuts here feature such immediately recognizable stuff as “Straight, No Chaser,” “Evidence,” “Bemsha Swing” and “Blue Monk); and the quartet exuded a verge-of-greatness air every time it set up shop. This was due, in part, to audiences clearly recognizing the blues foundation of the house that Monk built: “Hey man, this guy, like, swings.”
Rouse is in spectacular form here, as is the High Priest himself, both accomplishing those harmonic boundary-stretching somersaults that the best post-1955 innovators — Miles, Coltrane, Mingus, Rollins, Ornette et al — made into a deceptively common currency. This is the Monk quartet at its simultaneously most accessible and inventive peak.
Also just released by Columbia-Legacy (and recommended) is Monk’s Live at the Jazz Workshop — Complete, a fine two-CD set from a November 1964 gig in San Francisco. The Larry Gales (bass) and Ben Riley (drums) rhythm section is a winner, but the whole just doesn’t crackle and pop like the Tokyo sides.
George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at email@example.com.