Back in 1957 at the date of this recording, it seemed like an odd combination for Gerry Mulligan, a baritone saxophonist from the West Coast Jazz movement to be paired up with Thelonius Monk, whose name was synonymous with bop. They became friends and admirers of each other’s music as they both worked in New York during the late ’40s and early ’50s.
When producer Orrin Keepnews became aware of their friendship, he decided to get them to record together. Bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Shadow Wilson, who were performing at the Five Spot with Monk, accompanied them. The album is comprised mostly of Monk tunes with Mulligan’s “Decidedly” and the standard “Sweet and Lovely” rounding out the album.
Mulligan’s baritone captures the right tone and mood of “‘Round Midnight.” It was on his insistence that he had an opportunity to play this song with Monk whose wonderful, unique style is evident throughout the song and the album. Sometimes Monk plays the piano in a very fluid, lyrical manner while at other times his fingers forcefully strike the keys, altering their sound. You always have to pay attention to Monk because you never know what he’s going to do next. I found myself at a lost to pick his best work on the album because my opinion changed to whatever was the last track I had heard.
“Decidedly” is very interesting in the way the men take turns on the track, switching members as they play parts as a trio, giving way to solos and playing as a group. Take 4 was so good it’s hard to believe they thought they needed another take, but lucky for us they did. While the structure is similar, Take 5 is different. It’s 30 seconds longer and their individual pieces have changed, as if the men feel freer to explore, knowing that they already have a solid take in the can.
“Straight, No Chaser (take 3)” is 90 seconds longer than the first take and contains Mulligan’s best work on the album. He lets loose a number of notes that meld well together. The bass and drums get some time to shine with their solos. Take 1 has a great bass solo by Ware.
When the album was originally planned, it was to include some tracks recorded with a large all-star group and formal arrangements, but after the first session that included “I Mean You,” “Rhythm-a-ning” and “Straight, No Chaser,” Mulligan and Monk felt that their quartet was the right way to go. After hearing this album, you’ll agree with them.