Sunday, June 30, 2013

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall

The six months that John Coltrane spent with Thelonious Monk in the latter part of 1957 has long been heralded as one of the great partnerships in jazz and for good reason.  Coltrane finally kicked a longtime heroin habit earlier in the year after being fired by Miles Davis, under whom the tenor saxophonist had gotten his first major recognition.  Monk, after years as an under-recognized innovator of the so-called "bop" movement, was also starting to get long overdue attention for his work, including the amazing 1956 record, Brilliant Corners, with the tenor giant Sonny Rollins.  When Davis fired Coltrane, Monk was quick to get the sax player to join his quartet.

For most of the last part of 1957, the quartet had a residency at the Five Spot Café and as the year closed the band's legend grew.  While Coltrane had to calibrate his staggering work ethic to the demands of playing with the highly unorthodox Monk, the rapport and effort the two put forward paid off handsomely during the engagement.  Less talked about, however, was the solid backing of bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and, especially, drummer Shadow Wilson.

Unfortunately, the quartet was at all well recorded--Trane made appearances on the Monk's Music  record, but it was not until 1961 that producer Orrin Keepnews cobbled together a few unreleased studio pieces from July 1957, at the beginning of Coltrane's tenure and some outtakes from the Monk's Music record along with one solo performance from the leader's Thelonious Alone album for the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane, which was released in 1961 when Trane had become a major star.

The result was that the legend of the Monk/Coltrane outfit was one perpetuated by those who had seen the band live, particularly as the six-month residency matured and developed.  This was especially noteworthy as the studio recordings all came when Trane was still learning to play with Monk's singular style and complex arrangements.

Then, in early 2005 a stunning discovery was made at the Library of Congress and its Voice of America international radio program collection.  the LOC's recording lab supervisor Larry Appelbaum, as he explains in his short note, was "thumbing through some VOA acetate tapes awaiting digitization" when he "noticed several reels labeled 'Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957." 

There was a Thanksgiving performance on 29 November at the famed New York venue with a stunning lineup of Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Chet Baker with Zoot Sims, Sonny Rollins, and "Thelonious Monk quartet with John Coltrane."  And, one of the tape boxes, Appelbaum found, was labeled "T. Monk" and listed song titles.  As he remembered, "When we played it, I recognized both Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and my heart started racing." 

Appelbaum had found a "holy grail" that had been searched for diligently by Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter, who contributed his own essay, as did Amiri Baraka (the former LeRoi Jones), Ira Gitler, Ashley Kahn, Stanley Crouch and Robin D. G. Kelley.  This is a formidable lineup of jazz critics and writers testifying to the importance of this astonishing discovery.

There were two shows recorded that day for broadcast on the Voice of America and the music is just spectacular.  These are fully realized versions of some of Monk's greatest compositions, from "Crepuscule with Nellie" to "Epistrophy" to "Sweet and Lovely" to "Monk's Mood."  The leader sparkles throughout with his unique way of writing, arranging, soloing and comping behind Trane, while the latter appeared totally comfortable with his surroundings and displays much of that rapid-fire, intricately developed, and carefully orchestrated soloing style that Gitler, to his regret, termed, at that time, as "sheets of sound."

Again, though, it's easy to overlook the rhythm section--guys who were not given the kind of attention provided to others of the time, but whose way of supporting Monk and Trane were perfectly suited for the tunes, the sound and the personnel.  Wilson, in particular, is fine form.

This is one of those rare recordings that matches its historical significance with peak performance.  Not long after, however, Coltrane would return to work with Miles Davis on some of that trumpeter's greatest albums, including Milestones, recorded just a few months after this performance, and 1959's Kind of Blue, just highlighted on this blog, while also moving closer to establishing himself as a major leader, beginning with Blue Train, also with Blue Note and recorded in 1957, and leading to Giant Steps in 1959 and everything that came after.

Monk and Coltrane only played together for six months, mostly unrecorded at the Five Spot residency, but this hidden gem shows just what they had accomplished towards the end of their partnership.  It is one of the high points in all of jazz, without exception.

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