The best thing about Concord Music Group’s “Very Best of…” series is that it gives jazz fans a chance to hear again a few of those classic vinyl performances that at least some of us have buried away in boxes in closets or dusty attics. The worst thing about them is that it is only a few of those performances. The Very Best of Thelonious Monk is an excellent example of both. The album collects 10 tracks from eight albums Monk recorded for Prestige, Riverside and Jazzland from 1954 to 1958. Now while 10 tracks from Monk are always welcome, the trouble is 10 doesn’t even scratch the surface of the available wealth.
One example: Brilliant Corners, a 1956 album featuring four of Monk’s original compositions, is represented by one tune, “Bemsha Swing.” Brilliant Corners was the first of Monk’s albums I ever bought, and it breaks my heart that the other three aren’t here as well, not to mention the fifth cut on the album, Harry Barris’s “I Surrender, Dear.” Brilliant Corners is recognized as one of the greatest jazz albums ever produced. This is the pianist’s quintet, an ensemble of legends: Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry, Max Roach, and Paul Chambers. Oscar Pettiford and Ernie Henry join in on several cuts, and Monk plays the celeste on “Pannonica.” How can any of it be left off a best of album, let alone a very best of?
Brilliant Corners is classic stuff and it deserves better, but it might seem mean-spirited to complain about an album which includes things like a solo version of “‘Round Midnight” from the 1957 Thelonious Himself album and a live performance of “Nutty” with a delicious solo from Johnny Griffin on tenor sax from 1958’s Misterioso. You can’t have everything and you know the old saw about pleasing all the people. On the other hand, when you’re talking about Thelonious Monk, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to think about The Very Best of vol. 2 and maybe even vol. 3.
Enough complaining about what isn’t there. What is there is Monk at his best in a variety of combos joined with some of the finest musicians of the era. Every track is a highlight. Art Blakey and Oscar Pettiford join him in the Fats Waller classic “Honeysuckle Rose,” and it is a jewel of a performance. “Blue Monk,” the earliest track on the album, is sweet blues for a trio featuring Blakey and Percy Heath. Monk works with sax player Coleman Hawkins on “Ruby, My Dear,” John Coltrane on “Tinkle, Tinkle” and with both of the virtuoso sax men on the longest track on the album, “Well, You Needn’t.”
The album includes excellent liner notes from Neil Tesser. His explanations of this music’s place in Monk’s development as an artist as well as the history of his relations with producer Orrin Keepnews offer valuable insights that add immeasurably to the listener’s enjoyment.
This is without a doubt an album that will leave every jazz lover, and every music lover wanting more. It got me going to that closet to find that box with the Brilliant Corners album. Fortunately, I still have a turntable.