Misterioso, Thelonious Monk’s 1958 album recorded live at the Five Spot Café in Greenwich Village, gets its title from his 1948 composition of the same name. It serves as the final track of the original set before the inclusion of bonus material. As Neil Tesser points out in the liner notes for the remastered release of the classic album from Jazz Classics, the term “misterioso” is Latin and means “in a mysterious manner.” It is most often used in as notation in classical music, but by the time Monk made this record with his quartet, it had largely come to identify Monk himself.
“Misterioso” as an adjective is less a description of the music than it is of the musician. Tesser points out that while today there are few jazz innovators more honored than Thelonious Monk, back in the day it wasn’t always so. He may have prepared the way for much of what more appreciated artists—Dizzy, Bird—were doing, but it took him quite a bit longer to get the recognition. He wasn’t putting out the same kind of free flowing bop. He wasn’t playing with the same kind of virtuosity. A good many critics had difficulty understanding just what it was about the man and his music that was filling the Five Spot.
There is some sense in which the surreal painting that producer Orrin Keepnews and Riverside chose for the album cover is the perfect supplement to the title as an indication of what the listener could expect. Surrealist—although there is some debate about his surrealist credentials—Giorgio de Chirico’s painting, The Seer, suggests a world that is familiar, yet strange; it defies the viewers’ expectations. It is a vision that corresponds well with the way Monk’s music, his composing as well as his playing, defied the norms developed by even his progressive contemporaries.
Along with Thelonious in Action, which was also recorded during the Five Spot gigs in ’58, Misterioso introduced the quartet formula that was to become a Monk staple. Here the pianist is joined by Johnny Griffin’s tenor sax, bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, and Roy Haynes on drums. Art Blakey plays drums on the last of the three bonus tracks on the Jazz Classic reissue. Griffin, although he may not be the saxophonist most often associated with Monk’s quartet, is often praised for the speed of his playing and shows what he can do in lengthy solo upon lengthy solo, often throwing in a familiar quotation or two. Indeed, there are times when one begins to wonder where Monk has gone.
The album has nine tracks. All the songs are Monk originals except for “Just a Gigolo,” which the pianist serves up as a kind of solo palate cleanser. The one new piece on the album is “Blues Five Spot” in which each of the quartet’s members takes the spotlight for a solo. Everything else on the album was familiar work that Monk had recorded earlier in his career.
Familiar, perhaps, but Misterioso was and still is some of his finest and best known work. Additional material in the set included “Nutty,” a really nice take on “Let’s Cool One,” and “In Walked Bud.” The bonus tracks adding about 28 minutes of music are “Evidence,” “‘Round Midnight” and a medley of “Bye-Ya” and “Epistrophy.”