After having his New York City Cabaret Card reinstated in 1957, Thelonious Monk performed a six-month residency at the Five Spot Café with a quartet that included John Coltrane, who was on leave from the Miles Davis Quintet. Due to contract issues, very little of their work together was recorded. Luckily, this two-CD set collects all of their material from Riverside Records, the label Monk was signed with, over the course of four days.
The first session was recorded on April 12. Monk and Trane play as a trio with bassist Wilbur Wood. The first clip is a false start of “Monk’s Mood” as Monk, for whatever reason, didn’t hear the engineer clearly call it out. On the complete track, the song opens with Monk’s lilting, staggering piano. Ware’s bass comes in briefly to assist in the welcoming of Trane, who takes the lead while Monk provides rhythm and creates some counterpoint flourishes and punctuation. Ware’s bass plays softly, though infrequently, underneath.
The next session was recorded over the course of two days: June 25 and 26. A septet was formed by taking the trio and adding Ray Copeland on trumpet, Gigi Gryce on alto sax, Art Blakey on drums, and tenor sax great Coleman Hawkins, whose quartet provided Monk with his first studio appearance in 1944.
“Crepuscule with Nellie” was a new Monk composition, dedicated to his wife who was ill. A slow-moving piece, the piano is accompanied by Blakey’s brushwork. When it comes back around, the horns join in. A difference can be heard from “Take 1” to “Take 2” as the drums are more active, nearly taking over the lead. A final attempt was tried that evening, but not completed. Monk gives up early, tries to continue, but stops.
Later that evening, Monk was discovered out cold on his piano. He was wheeled out of the room on an equipment cart, and Orrin Keepnews, like any good producer, didn’t want to waste money so he asked the musicians if any of them had an extended blues riff. Gryce taught everyone a blues line that developed into a swinging 13-minute epic “Blues for Tomorrow.” After spending the evening constraining themselves to fulfill Monk’s precise vision, the musicians stretch their wings and soar. This CD contains the first release of the song in stereo.
They didn’t continue with “Crepuscule” when they all resumed on the 26th, but those are the next tracks in order on the disc. Takes 4 and 5 were combined for a previous reissue. Keepnews explains how he took “a very well-executed piano solo on an incomplete Take 4 with the out-chorus with a satisfactory out-chorus from Take 5.” Take 6 is the track that was originally released.
Take 4 and 5 of “Off Minor” close out Disc 1. The first three takes don’t appear and we don’t know why as Keepnews makes no reference to number in the liner notes. Variations can be heard between the takes. The bass and drums get more solo time on Take 5.
Disc 2 begins with two takes of “Abide With Me”, a minute-long hymn performed just by the horn section. The Monk-Kenny Clarke tune, “Epistrophy”, appears in a three-minute short version that could also be called the “radio edit” by today’s standards. It is rendered obsolete by the 11-minute version that follows. There is more time for everyone to solo, and, in order, they are Coltrane, Copeland, Gryce, Ware, Blakey, Hawkins, and Monk. However, what really makes the track shine is the brilliance of Blakey’s drum work as he tears the roof off.
“Well, You Needn’t” begins, but Monk stops. The tape rolls and he restarts but aborts the take shortly thereafter. The complete take follows it and you can hear Monk shouting out, “Coltrane, Coltrane” to let him know to take the lead. Monk solos frame the number and in between his bookends we hear Coltrane, Copeland, Ware, Blakey, Hawkins, and Gryce.
Closing out the session is “Ruby, My Dear” with Coleman Hawkins who performs only with the rhythm section. His sound can be compared and contrasted with Coltrane on the very next track as the remaining three tracks on the disc are performed by Monk’s Five Spot quartet, the trio that opened the album with Shadow Wilson on drums.
A comparison can also be made with the opening track “Monk’s Mood.” Trane sounds more self-assured and purposeful as the months spent with Monk has taught him volumes about his playing and interaction with the other musicians. Although their working relationship was brief, Coltrane’s apprenticeship benefited us all.
The two-CD set is great and showcases amazing performances. A must-have for Monk and Coltrane scholars and fans who enjoy hearing the process. The slight changes and alterations are similar to outtakes on a DVD.
However, the false starts and breakdowns aren’t needed for the casual fan. The arrangement of music would have worked better if all the completed pieces were together and the outtakes were on a separate disc. The five versions of “Crepuscule with Nellie” out of six tracks are a little monotonous. For those who are interested in only the finished product, I recommend the album Monk’s Music and downloading “Blues For Tomorrow".