Even though Thelonious Monk had been recording for over a decade already, 1957 was the year he was finally accepted by the mainstream jazz audience. Peers, hipsters, and writers “in the know” had been into Monk from the beginning. But the pianist’s dissonant, sometimes broken rhythms had been a tough sell to the general public. Monk’s Music changed all of that for good.
There were a myriad of reasons the album broke through. For one, Monk assembled an awesome array of talent for the sessions. His septet included John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins (tenor saxophones), Gigi Gryce (alto saxophone), Wilbur Ware (bass), Ray Copeland (trumpet), and Art Blakey (drums). There was also the fact that majority of the tracks were practically a greatest hits collection of Monk’s compositions. Finally, producer Orrin Keepnews allowed take after take of each tune to be recorded, to insure the greatest possible results. In that era, when jazz albums were routinely recorded in a single afternoon session, this was unheard of.
Monk’s Music announces that it will be a departure from the standard fare with the opening track, “Abide With Me.” This is a 19th century hymn and features the four horns exclusively. It is a statement from Thelonious that this album is his vision, and his alone. Like it or not, this is Monk’s Music.
“Well, You Needn’t” follows, and is as powerful a track as any the jazz world had heard. The song was originally recorded by Monk for the Blue Note label in 1947, but it sounded nothing like this. John Coltrane steps up first with one of the most blistering solos he recorded yet, and is followed in turn by each member of the band. Blakey is especially notable, not only for how hard he anchors the tune, but for his inspired solo.
After such a furious onslaught, Monk reaches back to a ballad he composed as a teen for girlfriend Ruby Richardson, titled “Ruby, My Dear.” The great Coleman Hawkins digs deep with his rich playing, to evoke those passionate emotions only young love can evoke.
“Off Minor” is an example of how dedicated Keepnews was in regards to getting the perfect take. The recording that made the cut on the original LP is the group’s sixth version. As one of the CD bonus selections, the septet’s fourth attempt is included. They both sound great to me, although Coltrane and Gryce are noticeably absent.
The mighty “Epistrophy” was co-written by Monk and legendary bop drummer Kenny Clarke in 1941. Coltrane and Copeland burn the chrome off their horns with the solos they take upfront. Later, the rhythm section of Ware and Blakey vamp along in a most agreeable way—until Hawkins takes it home with his powerhouse blowing.
The original LP ended with “Crepuscle With Nellie,” which is practically a solo ballad by Monk. The title is actually French for “Twilight With Nellie,” Nellie being Thelonious’ wife. Again, multiple takes were recorded—number six was used for the album. Versions four and five have been edited together to provide the second of the three bonus tracks and offers some interesting points of comparison.
The third extra is a lengthy jam titled “Blues For Tomorrow.” At one point during the sessions, Monk bailed out, leaving the band in the studio with tape running. Gigi Gryce introduced a blues arrangement he had been working on, and the pros went to work. What emerged was a hot blues improv, minus Thelonious Monk. The song eventually appeared as the title track to a Riverside Records compilation later that year.
Without question, Thelonious Monk made some of the most influential, and greatest recordings of the golden age of jazz. Monk’s Music was his first unqualified masterpiece and is recommended unequivocally.