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Feeling Monkish

New CDs and a DVD to thrill Thelonious Monk fans

By Greg Cahill

A lot of jazz buffs, fans and critics alike, were flummoxed by Thelonious Monk's angular rhythms and sideways chord progressions when the hard-bop pianist started recording for the Blue Note label in 1948. For a while, he seemed destined to become a cult figure revered by only a small cadre of jazz cognoscenti. But 1956's Brilliant Corners (Riverside), newly digitally remastered as a hybrid stereo SACD that bristles with startling clarity, provided the breakthrough that would win over even his staunchest critics.

Brilliant Corners was Monk's third album on the Riverside label and the first with all original music. It's genesis was a painful one.

For the recording session, Monk enlisted alto saxophonist Ernie Henry (considered John Coltrane's equal at the time), tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and drummer Max Roach (trumpet player Clark Terry sits in on one track and Miles Davis' bassist Paul Chambers replaces Pettiford on another). But despite the talent-laden lineup, the musicians struggled to master Monk's complicated compositions. Producer Orrin Keepnews recalled that it took 25 takes and four hours in the studio to lay down an acceptable version of the title track, which required the players to double their tempo every second chorus. "I had no way of foreseeing how incredibly more difficult this would be for me [than the first two albums]," Keepnews once wrote. "Basically dealing with Monk in full-scale action meant that it was my job to supervise and control the creative flow of recording sessions that involved a perfectionist leader driving a group of sensitive and talented artists beyond their limits."

Those bruised egos were worth the effort.

Clocking in at just over 48 minutes, the five-track Brilliant Corners featured one unaccompanied piano piece ("I Surrender, Dear") and two blues numbers (including "Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are," a tune dedicated to the Hotel Bolivar, where, according to Straight, No Chaser author Leslie Gourse, management had objected to Monk wandering the halls in a bright red shirt that accentuated the pianist's eccentric demeanor and even scared guests).

In retrospect, the accessible blues tunes, along with the ballad "Pannonica," contribute to the album's relatively laid-back feel and belie the on-the-edge innovation of the composer's work. But Brilliant Corners is still notable for its incredible freshness--just as it served as a calling card to a broader audience in the conservative Eisenhower Era, this new SACD release reminds us just how creative Monk was in his day and what a driving force he became on the bop and post-bop scenes.

On Aug. 17, look for yet another Monk Riverside title on SACD, Monk's Music, which teams the pianist with his old boss Coleman Hawkins and his ideal drummer, Art Blakey.

But the summer's best Monk treat is the newly released Monk 'Round the World (Hyena/Thelonious), a two-disc set that features a seven-track CD and a three-song DVD (featuring black-and-white film concert footage) of previously unreleased US and European live concert performances. This rare material, recorded in various cities between 1961 and 1965, represents the first time the Monk estate has opened its vaults to an outside label, in this case Hyena Records and its label chief, the veteran jazz producer Joel Dorn.

It's essential Monk. Saxophonist Charlie Rouse, who had joined Monk's group in 1959, appears on all the tracks. The rhythm section personnel change throughout, alternately featuring John Ore (bass) and Frank Dunlop (drums); Butch Warren (bass) and Ben Riley (drums); and Larry Gales (bass) and Ben Riley (drums).

Monk 'Round the World is the follow-up to last year's critically acclaimed two-CD set Monk in Paris: Live at the Olympia (Hyena/Thelonious), which also included three DVD performances originally filmed in Oslo. The new CD opens with a remarkably danceable version of "Epistrophy," recorded in 1963 at the Monterrey Jazz Festival--arguably one of the best live Monk recordings ever released. It's hard to remember a more driving version of "Rhythm-a-Ning," with Rouse swinging harder than youšve heard him.

The sound quality on all the audio tracks is exceptional, with rumbling bass lines and popping rim shots. Basketball legend-turned-author Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a self-professed Monk fanatic, penned liner notes that serve as a reminiscence of his own early exposure to jazz but provide no insight into the enigmatic jazz master. Oh, well, better to let these exceptional recordings do the talking.

Meanwhile, despite a fairly aggressive SACD release schedule, the Berkeley-based Fantasy Records (God bless 'em) is continuing to offer its stellar audiophile-quality 20-bit K2 Super Coding jazz series, with several recent reissues that include Thelonious Himself (Riverside), a 1957 session equally split between originals and standards in a mostly solo-piano setting (John Coltrane and bassist Wilbur Ware pop up to accompany Monk on one fine track, "Monk's Mood").

Other recent K2 releases include 1957's Traneing In, featuring John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio; Sonny Rollins' 1956 album Worktime, the saxophonist's first album since kicking the heroin habit that almost wrecked his career; the Wes Montgomery Trio's eponymous debut release-the guitarist's first session as a bandleader; and Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot, Vol 1, the 1961 recording that captured the legendary saxophonist and one of the era's greatest jazz bands (with trumpet player Booker Little, pianist Mal Waldron, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Ed Blackewell) on the final night of their only extended concert engagement.

And you can never own too many Eric Dolphy CDs.

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Web extra to the August 18-24, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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