Thelonious Monk – Mønk (2018)

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Tapes of an previously lost Thelonious Monk performance have been rescued and mastered by Gearbox Records, and are now available on an LP. Mønk is from the idiosyncratic pianist’s prime period and feature his most critically acclaimed quartet recorded live on March 5, 1963 at Odd Fellows Mansion in Copenhagen. He memorably collaborated with saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop on the Columbia studio albums Criss-Cross and Monk’s Dream, both released in 1963. Ore went on to play with Sun Ra.

Fifty-five years later these tapes have been saved, then cut using Gearbox’s legendary all-analog process. (They use the same lathe as Blue Note did back in the day.) The results on Mønk open a window onto Thelonious Monk in his prime, one year before he would become one of only five jazz artists to appear on the front cover of Time magazine.

Already a renowned jazz pianist who had worked with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Monk began to employ improvisational technique which included gaps in the music and repetition of phrases in different formats, while also using the keyboard to introduce disharmonic chords. Though grounded in gospel, Monk started experimenting and introducing his own improvised sections in pieces. With his idiosyncratic style, both in his playing and off-stage, Monk undoubtedly had an influence on jazz musicians like pianist Bud Powell who followed, inspiring them to improvise and play according to their heart. He was one of the key musicians to help forge links between bop, hardbop and free jazz.

Mønk is a wonderful showcase of that prowess. Thelonious Monk’s playing on this night features many of the artistic and rhythmic improvisational traits that brought him such acclaim and admiration. As this celebrated quartet reimagines and explores Monk’s classics, that approach to the piano is inimitable and unmistakable.

“Bye-Ya” opens Mønk with a dramatic drum solo from Frankie Dunlop, whose hard-hitting style comes to the fore throughout, adding punctuation and structure. The sax line is lovely, rolling and backed by a walking, strolling and constantly supportive bass. The drums pop in and out like a timely reminder and the lower notes of the wonderful Charlie Rouse on sax are completely in control and absolutely gorgeous. This track shows the strength of the integrity of the quartet – and Monk’s piano, needless to add, takes its own lines, adds little points of interruption and commentary to make the track speak to the listener. The ever-so-polite clapping from the Danish audience halfway through is in contrast to the musical shenanigans on stage. The piano solo from those dextrous fingers of Monk, along with his disharmonic interpretation of the theme later in the track, tell you this is Thelonious Monk at his definitive best. The clapping is more enthusiastic as the track finishes.

“Nutty” makes masterful use of space and melody. The theme is set early on and repeated several times before Charlie Rouse’s masterful solo begins – and masterful is the right word, as he takes center stage musically, with Monk accompanying with some style. It is hard to express Monk’s ability as an accompanist, and he is rightfully considered one of the best the jazz world has known. Here, he is intuitive and almost psychic in his support of the solo, and the bass and percussive lines are pretty near perfect too. This allows the solo to develop, whilst offering solid scaffolding underneath. The piano emerges for a solo with the bass accompanying around the half way mark, and the drums never let you forget they are there as part of the music, not just to maintain the beat: Their emphatic complimentary strokes and beats add direction and strength. Monk does a few things which are so Thelonious Monk, including a little disharmonious section just when the theme is really getting going – almost like he’s saying to the audience: “Well, did you hear that? What I just did there? No? Well, how about this? Still the tune, though – Ha!” All the time, the bass is constant and steady.

“I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” is simply lovely, with some slight syncopations and weird harmonies worked in but not enough to throw the listener. It’s a clever and very Monk-ish thing to do and many who followed take this little trick, which adds interest and variation. After the piano introduction, the track moves along with sax, bass and drums all adding their weight and input. The sax solo is again wonderful and demonstrates the choice Monk made was right for this quartet. The piano rises, drifts, crashes and falls away as Monk sees fit, and this is a beautifully woven track. It’s tight as velvet, smooth as silk and strong as sisal.

“Body and Soul” opens with Monk serving up a smorgasbord of styles and deliveries, all for the listener’s enjoyment. Trinkels, triplets for doubles, then some classic-influenced methodology, all delivered with a twist and put together in a way which many players wish they could. The great thing with Thelonious Monk is he plays in the moment, and you can almost feel his emotions chasing each other here. Gorgeous does not go near this. Sometimes, the thought that such a recording could have been lost is too much. Mønk is amazing.

“Monk’s Dream” is totally band-delivered. The quartet here display just how tight their bond is, with Rouse altering dynamics and taking the lead for much of the track, whilst Ore and Dunlop are tuned in, seeming to foresee Monk’s unpredictable shifts and turns, intertwining with one another and him effortlessly. It is testament to the caliber of the musicians that they smoothly and effortlessly take the cues which Monk distributes so liberally, but so quickly one after the other and do not let it phase them at all. This create a sense of ease and fluidity which could be lost with lesser players. There’s a reason this is considered to be the definitive Monk quartet – and “Monk’s Dream,” perhaps more than any other here, confirms it.

Lost recordings of this stature are rare, especially when it comes to major players like Monk, making this a treat for enthusiasts, Thelonious Monk followers, historians and music lovers. Credit goes to Gearbox, a vinyl-led label that cuts and masters using original analog machinery in their London studio.

“The original tape was a Scotch broadcast tape amongst a collection of delights we bought from a Danish producer who had literally picked them from a skip some 20 years ago. He was going to use them to sample and remix during the acid-jazz heyday but didn’t have time,” label founder Darrel Sheinman says. “This album represents several years of hard work: Firstly, to source the tape and clear the Monk-related rights issues, then to create a special all-analog recording which is analog all the way from the source to the stock on the shelf. AAA means Analog recording, Analog mix, Analog master – no digital in the path. We felt this was the only way to produce probably one of the best Monk renditions we have ever heard.”

I asked Shienman what he felt the recordings and release meant for the label, which has already been instigators in saving recordings from tapes, mastered using their own machines, for example, from BBC sessions which would have been lost to time due to the quality deteriorating. “Well, it is not a remaster, as it has never been out before. It is a milestone for the label,” Shienman said. “Whilst we have released other great jazz artists on the label such as Dexter Gordon, Michael Garrick and Tubby Hayes, we have never had one of the ‘holy trinity’ [of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk]. Special!”

I asked him how he feels it contributes to the already vast store of Monk music. Darrell simply said: “You can never have too much Monk.” On the process Shienman comments, “The quality was excellent. We did only minor tickling on the EQ [equalization, or balancing the sound]. All analogue, an easy mastering job.”

The liner notes for Mønk have been written by Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus, and jazz writer Stephen Graham. The collector’s edition of the vinyl – limited to 500 copies worldwide – will also come with a previously unpublished, signature-embossed 30×30 print of Thelonious Monk by British journalist and photographer Val Wilmer. The record will also be pressed on audiophile, transparent vinyl and comes in a vintage style tip-on, hand-numbered sleeve. There will also be a standard vinyl/CD release and Mønk will exist on all digital streaming platforms as well.

The overriding sense here is the connection between the players. All great, all capable of filling (or emptying) a place at will, these masters of their instruments listen, interpret, and at times with uncanny foresight, seem to be there just a shade before Monk: They really “get” his playing, which took some doing at the time.

Some might wonder why recordings – especially “lost” recordings – are so important, and also ponder the fact that many artists made personal recordings and many recordings have been lost. But the fact is few musicians had such an influence as Thelonious Monk, and latterly John Coltrane, and this is why it is important that any recording – and, indeed, perhaps especially those kept (as the ‘Trane tapes) by the artist – are shared because those who have followed in their giant footsteps can have a sense of a clearer path. The gaps are filled and the picture is complete.

Of course, practice sessions, jams and collective ensembles are now lost to time, but the listener can, with the help of these recordings, gain more a sense of the progression of these artists and how they developed over time. The more you hear, the easier the path is to trace. Found recordings also instigate a fear in the listener – the fear that, had it not been for some peculiar twists of fate and uncanny collisions of events, recordings like Mønk could have been forever lost.

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