Pianist Thelonious Monk and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan came together in 1957 to record Mulligan Meets Monk. That album has now been reissued as a part of the ongoing Original Jazz Classics Remasters Series.
Throughout jazz history, musicians have constantly played with one another in the studio and on stage. What was unique about the Monk-Mulligan union was how different they were in temperament, cultural background, and approach to music. The result may not have been one of the best jazz albums ever produced but it certainly was one of the more interesting.
Monk was one of the signature musicians and pianists in jazz history. His use of dissonant notes and odd rhythms helped him build the structures of his compositions. He was most comfortable alone or in a small group setting. He always had a mysterious quality about him and is considered one of the leading proponents of the bebop movement.
Mulligan was more melodic and was very comfortable in larger groups and even orchestral settings. He was associated with the cool jazz movement and during the mid-1950s was at the height of his popularity. What they had in common was a genuine friendship, plus the talent as two of the better musicians in jazz history. This allowed them to overcome the musical tensions that permeate some of the tracks. There are four alternate takes that were not a part of the original album.
“Straight No Chaser” is a classic Thelonious Monk composition. The bonus track is take one and finds Mulligan very tentative as he explores the composition but there is no Monk solo whatsoever. It is take three that was originally issued and at a minute and a half longer, it contains a Monk solo that plays off Mulligan’s. Similarly, the first two takes of “I Mean You” are somewhat frenetic and rushed. The fourth released take is more leisurely as they trade relaxed solos.
Throughout the album it is usually Mulligan who tries to adjust and allow Monk room to play. Many times the tension is in the waiting for Monk to jump in at the right time. The music was recorded as a quartet with bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Shadow Wilson, which was also in Monk’s comfort zone.
As with all the releases in the series, the sound has been remastered and is excellent considering the state of recording equipment in 1957. The original liner notes and an extended essay of the music are also included.
Mulligan Meets Monk was a leap of faith for the two musicians and remains so for the listener. It is not the best music they ever recorded but it is guaranteed to keep your attention.