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Music Review: Thelonious Monk Quintet – Monk

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Thelonious Monk was already a legend in 1953, when the first of these recordings were made. He had only been on the scene for a few years, but his unique perspectives both onstage and off kept people guessing all the time. This was a trait that persisted throughout his career.

The seven tracks that comprise Monk are actually the results of two separate sessions, with two different quintets. The first occurred November 13, 1953, and the quintet consisted of: Willie Jones (drums), Percy Heath (bass), Julius Watkins (French horn), Sonny Rollins (tenor sax), and Thelonious Monk himself (piano).

Legend has it that Monk and Rollins shared a cab on the way in to the studio, and the taxi was involved in a minor collision, making them very late for the session. A number titled “Friday The 13th” was recorded to mark the event, but due to time constraints of the LP format back then, it was held back for later release.

The three tunes that were released as side two of Monk were “Let’s Call This,” and two versions of “Think Of One.”

“Let’s Call This” contains some outstanding solos from Watkins, Rollins, and Monk. But what I find most striking are the sax and French horn combinations that open and close the cut. The sound of those two instruments played in tandem is definitely different.

I agree with critic Ira Gitler’s assessment in the liner notes that of the two versions of “Think Of One,” the first contains the better soloing. However, both takes are worth listening to, for the differences alone if nothing else.

Side one of the original LP was recorded May 11, 1954 by Rudy Van Gelder in his studio in Hackensack, NJ. Except for Monk himself, this is a completely different quintet and features: Curly Russell (bass), Ray Copeland (trumpet), Frank Foster (tenor sax), and Art Blakey (drums).

The four tracks laid down at this date offer much more variety than that of the earlier set. Opening with “We See,” both Monk and Copeland shine in their respective solo spots.

Next comes the only non-Monk composition on the disc, a version of the classic “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” While the entire quintet is present, they lay back for the most part, allowing Monk’s piano to dominate this great ballad.

“Locomotive” is an aptly titled piece, as the bass and drums propel it in a rolling style. Frank Foster’s sax solo is outstanding in his solo spot, and as he brings the number to a chugging close.

“Hackensack” is Monk’s tribute to Rudy Van Gelder and his studio. It is a rollicking song, spotlighting Art Blakey, and the trumpet of Ray Copeland. Blakey‘s drum solo in particular is one of Monk’s high points.

Monk is another in the RVG Remasters series on Prestige, and well worth checking out. All of the artists who appear here are at the peak of their powers, transitioning between bop and what was to come later in the decade.

It’s hard to go wrong with anything by Thelonious Monk, and the quintet format of Monk aptly shows some of the reasons why.

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