Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane

By - Dec 1st, 2005 02:52 pm
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By Blaine Schultz


About a half-century ago, giants walked among us. They wrote and played music for extended low-key club dates, performing special concerts and releasing records periodically. Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane were two of these giants, and this recently discovered November 29, 1957 recording from the Library of Congress vaults is a vital contribution to their respective legacies.

In the summer of ‘57, Coltrane joined Monk’s group at an NYC club called the Five Spot. The Carnegie Hall recording presents the group in more genteel surroundings. Regardless of venue, these musicians are at the height of their powers, Monk certainly the more established and Coltrane ready to open doors previously unseen.

If Monk’s piano playing is less spiky and angular than typical (if there is such a thing as “typical Monk”), he certainly gets into the loose sparring with Coltrane’s sax. Opening with “Monk’s Mood” from the early show, the soloists riff and dance around and through each other’s phrases. By the second tune, “Evidence,” a slipstream opens up and Coltrane blows at will. This is the early stage of his technique of playing the notes of a chord in succession—later to be called “sheets of sound”—still within the tune’s melody. But with the benefit of hindsight, it seems he’s testing the boundaries for his later masterworks. Ahmed Abdul-Malik ‘s bass provides a sinewy walking line that is both strong and resilient enough to support and propel the tune.  At several points, Monk and Coltrane play unison lines to state a tune’s theme. The effect is a thickness and depth that sounds like more than a piano and saxophone, with the keyboard sounding concise and the sax just on the verge of over-blowing. Credit also Shadow Wilson’s drumming and cymbal work, which seem to have been brought into focus with the digital mastering. The closing tune, a partial take of “Epistrophy,” can be heard as Monk’s statement of purpose. On this night there is a feeling of openness and genuine collaboration. Monk is ultimately unique and not always the easiest player to get a grip on. But this evening he, Coltrane, and the others sound unguarded in their enjoyment.  VS

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