When one of the great, if not greatest, jazz pianists of the 20th century gets together with the absolute greatest baritone sax player of the age to make a record, expectations are bound to be high. And when you’re talking about Thelonious Monk and Gerry Mulligan, those expectations are astronomically high, perhaps too high. As great as they are, these are two artists with very specific musical identities, working in very different styles. Monk was the master of bebop; Mulligan played cool jazz. Monk was East, Mulligan, West—and you have to wonder what would emerge if ever the twain should meet.
Of course, meet they did. Back in 1957, under the aegis of legendary producer Orrin Keepnews, the two men who had become acquainted years earlier at a Paris jazz festival and admired each other’s work, were persuaded to record a session. The Riverside album Mulligan Meets Monk, now newly re-released as a remastered disc from Concord, is the result. And while the album contains some fine sounds, ultimately I have to question whether it meets those high expectations. It is more than likely that nothing the two could have done, nothing that anyone could have done, would ever have met such great expectations. Bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Shadow Wilson complete the quartet.
It is a session that has produced some excellent solo moments, but seems to lack the intuitive continuity that comes from kindred spirits. The two don’t always seem comfortable with what they’re doing. Although Keepnews’ original liner notes point out that the two men admired each other’s music and neither felt the need to compete, there is something tentative, especially in Mulligan. It is almost as if he is awe of Monk and trying too hard, or maybe it’s simply a clash of styles. Whatever the reason, this Monk-Mulligan meeting is not quite the masterpiece I expected.
The original album has a set of six tunes: four Monk compositions, one from Mulligan, and one standard. Monk’s classic “’Round Midnight,” which begins the album, is also its high point. Keepnews says that Mulligan was keen on playing the piece. His eagerness comes through in his approach. He and Monk mesh nicely, as they do on “I Mean You,” which closes the album. They do a tight version of the ballad “Sweet and Lovely” and Monk does a sweet solo on Mulligan’s “Decidedly.” “Straight, No Chaser” and the playful “Rhythm-a-ning” complete the original album.
The Concord release includes four bonus tracks: alternate takes of “Decidedly” and “Straight, No Chaser” and two alternate takes of “I Mean You.” They make an interesting comparison with the tracks chosen for the original album.