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CD Review: Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane – The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings

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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.

About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • Mark Saleski

    you can hear Monk shouting out, “Coltrane, Coltrane” to let him know to take the lead

    this is the legendary “Monk wakes Trane out of a drug-induced nod” moment.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Oh, Mark, you rumor/trivia monger. Keepnews in the liner notes mentions this because it has become a popular myth.

    While the band members knew the number, there had been no rehearsal in the studio due to time constraints, so solo assignments were assigned beforehand, and according to Keepnews it was unusual to have the piano go first..

    Keepnews had made it a practice not to be so hasty in stopping the tape when something goes awry because of the wonderful accidents that could happen and not be recreated. He also mentions, “John was by that time already into a personal cleaning-up period.”

    Now, I don’t know which is true, but I’m not sure at this point why Keepnews would bother to clarify the story. It’s not as if it will someone how change Trane’s status or legend. Plus, he tells us about Monk’s crash that led to the creation of “Blues For Tomorrow”.

  • Mark Saleski

    yes, i should have put the word “legendary” in boldface. oops. sorry about that.

    and all of the myth-telling aside, Trane’s actually playing doesn’t support the drug stories. at least, i don’t think so.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Never tried heroin yet, so I can’t say. Hard to imagine you could do much on it, although who knows after you build up a tolerance.

    Zep’s Presence and In Thru the Out Door are Jimmy Page in his serious stages. His guitar work from either certainly doesn’t leap to mind as his best, but he doesn’t sound terrible. Jones had to step up in his place on the latter, which explains the difference in the band’s sound.

    I wish there could be some kind of study done regarding drug use and creativity because it is amazing the work created by so many who were serious users. Does it assist or is the work created in spite of?

    The Beatles music certainly changed after they got stoned with Dylan, but the members of Pink Floyd, aside from Syd obviously, contend that they weren’t serious drug users. In an interview, Waters said he only tried pyschedelics a couple of times.

    Not just musicians, though. Look at all the poets and writers who were able to accomplish a lot, but then that doesn’t account for all the users who didn’t have enough talent to rise of their habits and washed out.

    The “mind-expanding” drugs I could see affecting art, but not so much the “body-numbing” ones, although there’s exceptions to every rule.

  • Mark Saleski

    i’ve always been sorta fascinated by this topic. in any art, i can see that maybe you might become open to new things…..now, if you were able to actually remember this after coming down, that might translate into someting usable.

    as a guitar player, i’m amazed that anybody can play anything in heavily altered states. i can’t play for crap after more than one beer. never tried it on anything else.

    hmmm….lots of writers under the influence as well. Burroughs and his cohorts.

    p.s. i really liked those two Zep records, especially Presence…maybe because they were a little “un-Zep-like”?