These are glory days for fans of Thelonious Monk. Columbia is reissuing material from the pianist’s late-life commercial heyday in the 1960s. There’s Solo Monk, for instance, with additional tunes and alternate takes for completists; there’s the reissue of Underground which restores the tunes to their full, unedited lengths, delivering a Monk classic de-compromised. But the most exciting addition to the Monk discography may be the first live recording from Monk’s private tape stash, a live 1965 recording from the Olympia in Paris.
What made Monk great? His tunes have become so much a part of the jazz repertoire that it’s hard to believe that they once seemed nearly impossible to play. If we’ll never hear them as so shockingly new, the best Monk performances can still deliver an electric tingle. And this record ranks with the best. This isn’t just Monk swinging, this is Monk and company sailing off the bandstand. This is Monk punching chords here, tapping a glittering run of notes there, a brooding tumble of notes a tad later; all the while he’s egging on his bandmates. And no one is better at using the silence between phrases to ratchet up anticipation; in fact, Monk’s silences behind the saxophonist Charlie Rouse — a font of variations on Monk’s themes here — are sometimes so long that you wonder where he’s off to. What could he possibly be doing? When he’s back at the keys, Monk’s solos eschew smooth continuities for lumpy declarations, splashes of sound, echoes of the stride-style masters he admired.
But to understand Monk, it helps to see his music being made, as on the three-tune bonus DVD here. Recorded a year later, this is the same band, shot simply on a rather stark stage in Oslo, Norway. Here’s Monk with his ringed hands held flat out over the keys — a nightmare scene for many a piano instructor — then his fingers swat down at notes below; often he crosses his hands to play the mid-range with his right hand and jab at high notes with his left. He’s a bear of just-contained energy, his right foot bouncing like a piston, his whole body thrown into a sort of dance behind some passages. Now you can see what he does in those behind-the-solo silences, as he stands to the side of his piano with a distant look on his face (a clash of cool and anxiety perhaps?). With Larry Gales on bass and Ben Riley on drums, this is collective genius in action — sparked by Monk. And as the inaugural release of a new series from the Monk estate it leaves one anxious to hear what’s next.
W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.