The Definitive Thelonious Monk is one of three releases by The Concord Music Group, which has assembled early essential recordings by some jazz greats. Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane are also a part of this series.
Thelonious Monk, 1917-1982, was a jazz genius and one of the leading practitioners of the bebop movement. His improvisational ability and his penchant for jumping around within the melody was both innovative and critical to the development of American jazz.
His time with the Prestige label, 1952-1954, and the Riverside label, 1955-1961, was not commercially successful, but it formed the foundation for his later success with the Columbia label from 1962-1970. This release focuses exclusively upon his early work from 1952-1960.
The sound is excellent considering the recording equipment of the fifties and especially given the limitations of some of the smaller jazz labels. The booklet presents a nice biography of Monk and a history of each track. I also appreciate the chronological order of the songs as it allows the listener to follow his development as a musician.
His backing musicians are some of the cream of early fifties jazzmen. Art Blakely, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, and many more are among the artists who appear on this album.
The earliest track is “Bye-Ya” from 1952. It featured his basic trio of himself on piano, bassist Gary Mapp, and drummer Art Blakely. It is an excellent introduction to his early style. 1954’s “I Want To Be Happy” finds him sharing the spotlight with sax player Sonny Rollins. 1954’s “Bemsha Swing,” at over nine minutes, finds him supporting Miles Davis. 1957’s “‘Round Midnight,” at over six minutes, is pure Monk as he plays unaccompanied.
Many of the late fifties tracks are live performances and Thelonious Monk live is always a treat. “Little Rootie Tootie,” “Straight No Chaser,” and Four In One” are all over eight minutes in length, which allows him to improvise and stretch out.
The Definitive Thelonious Monkis a nice introduction into the mind and music of a modern jazz great. This selection of material is American jazz at its best.