The Definitive Thelonious Monk On Prestige and Riverside compiles 21 Monk classics on two CDs. These previously released tracks were recorded between 1952 and 1960. Presented chronologically by recording date, the more than two hours of music amounts to a crash course in one of jazz music’s most distinctive artists.
Monk’s idiosyncratic piano style, with its unpredictable meter and frequent dissonance, remains one of the essential instrumental voices in the genre. As with other leading jazz artists of the era, many of the musicians who accompanied Monk on these sessions are equally legendary.
Whether it be Art Blakey on drums, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane on saxophone, Miles Davis on trumpet, or numerous other luminaries, Monk was always in good company in the studio. A couple of tunes feature Monk completely unaccompanied, allowing the listener to fully focus on his innovative piano playing. “‘Round Midnight” is one of these, closing out the first disc, and its beauty is breathtaking.
Disc two kicks off with a priceless trio of older Monk classics, originally recorded in the 1940s. He revisited them in 1957, surrounded by an all-star ensemble. The group included Coleman Hawkins on tenor along with John Coltrane, a rare meeting of two giants who dominated different eras of jazz. “Well, You Needn’t” clocks in at over eleven minutes, allowing for each member of the seven piece band to stretch out. That tune, along with so many others found here, is a Monk original that has long since become a jazz standard.
Concord Music Group has compiled an effective Monk 101 with this release. Ashley Kahn, author of several jazz biographies, contributed an informative essay detailing Monk’s career. Notes about each track, along with photos of the album covers on which they were first issued, are also included in the lengthy booklet. The audio quality is excellent, especially when considering the age of the original recordings.
The Definitive Thelonious Monk On Prestige and Riverside makes an ideal starting place for anyone interested in the late artist’s music. It’s also an economic way for jazz fans to acquire the key recordings of Monk’s early career in one economic package.