Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of  Thelonious Sphere Monk – Sunnyside Records SSC 4032 (6CDs)*****

(Frank Kimbrough – piano; Scott Robinson – tenor & bass saxophones, trumpet, echo cornet, bass clarinet, contrabass sarrusophone; Rufus Reid – bass; Billy Drummond – drums)

MONK

Thelonious Sphere Monk was a genius. His own piano improvisational style was linear, but abrupt and riff directed. He was also inclined to use unexpected pauses, open spaces, dissonances, and off-kilter rhythmic movements of repeated phrases. These quirky mannerisms uniquely identified Monk’s piano playing. He composed prodigiously, and his compositions offered many pleasures and provided an insight into the inner workings of Monk’s mind as he created sound to amuse and gratify him.

Thelonious Monk was born in North Carolina on October 10, 1917  but moved to New York at an early age and settled in the area known as San Juan Hill, where Lincoln Center is now located. By age six, Monk was playing the piano, largely from self-instruction. In his teens, Monk began to play at small local jazz clubs and in late 1940 he became, in effect, the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse, where bop music was incubated.

It was during this period at Minton’s, he embarked on his earliest recordings as a sideman, demonstrating his forceful piano style. His first studio recording was with Colemen Hawkins band in 1944 entitled Flying Hawk. During his playing career, Monk recorded with four major labels: Blue Note ( 1948-52), Prestige (1952-54), Riverside (1955-61), Columbia (1962-68).

Fame came slowly for Monk. Musicians found his compositions difficult to play, and record buyers early on, were uninterested which lead to poor sales. However as some of his compositions such as “Epistrophy” “Hackensack” and “Ruby, My Dear” gained traction with swing and bop musicians, Monk’s stature increased accordingly. But it was probably, one of Monk’s early compositions, the ballad “‘Round Midnight” that solidified his place in jazz lore. When Miles Davis recorded “ ‘Round Midnight”  as the nucleus of his 1957 album ‘Round About Midnight, the tune was in the process of becoming one of the most distinctive numbers in jazz.

Later in his career, having achieved acceptance, Monk gradually withdrew from recording,  composing  and performing, as he made only three public appearances  (1974, 1975, 1976) all in New York City. There was much speculation that he may have suffered from some form of mental illness, or that he might have had Asperger’s syndrome. In any event little was seen or heard from him during the last ten years of his life. He died of a stroke on February 17,1982  in Englewood New Jersey.

The Recording

TheloniousMonk_Dangereuses

Les Dangereuses

The story of this monumental recording is told in expansive detail in a twenty-seven page booklet that accompanies the box set. Nate Chenin, former jazz critic for The New York Times sets the stage with an interesting overview of the project. Other written material is provided by Mait Jones, Associate Producer, Matt Balitsaris Engineer and Co-Producer, as well as the three other members of the band, Scott Robinson, Rufus Reid, and Billy Drummond.

Frank Kimbrough,  pianist and leader of the quartet, has had a lengthy attachment to Monk’s compositions. When playing his music, he strives to communicate his compositional style but plays the numbers without imitating them. His detailed essay in the booklet on the genesis of the project will not be repeated here, but a  précis is provided of the salient points.

For Monk’s centenary in 2017, Kimbrough and the band played a recital of many of his compositions  at the Jazz Standard, NYC on October 17.

On that occasion, an old friend Mait Jones suggested that the band go into a studio to record all of Monk’s compositions. This was an audacious proposition and one that could not be undertaken lightly. Shortly thereafter and with some number crunching , Mait Jones suggested that another NYC jazz aficionado Dr. Dorothy Lieberman might be interested in participating in the project. She was.

With that decided, all the individuals recognized that they required a committed record company to actualize the project, and accordingly François Zalacain at Sunnyside Records became the go to person. Once Sunnyside was onboard, Kimbrough wanted one further live crack at Monk’s music before the recording date, and that arrived in early April 2018, with two nights at Jazz at Kitano.

The recording was completed at Maggie’s Farm, Pipersville, Pennsylvania where the recording studio of Recording Engineer Matt Balitsaris is located.  The playlist for each of the six cds was agreed in advance and sent to each member of the quartet along with the music so that it could be worked on individually.

The recording dates were May 22-24, May 28-30, and June 20, 2018. Thirty-four compositions were completed in each of the three days sessions, with the final two solo pieces by Kimbrough on June 20. There were no rehearsals apart from what the band had done on the two club dates. There was some discussion on who would solo on each tune and how the number would be played. The tracks were laid down as per the previously agreed playlists ( for the most part). Most were done in one take, some required a second take, and a few in a very rare third take.

Listening to these recordings, it is easy to comprehend why Monk’s music has had such a profound meaning to the participants.They have done their utmost to convey it beautifully and passionately.

The Music

There are seventy Monk compositions in this six cd collection. Deciding how best to review them is a conundrum. Should this be attempted on a cd by cd basis or discuss the pieces on a more random basis ignoring the location on any particular cd.  Since the performances by the quartet, and the two Kimbrough solo piano efforts are impeccable, regardless of their placement in the cds, the random approach seemed to be the better option.

Thelonious Monk, Criss Cross Album Cover

Criss-Cross

The self-titled “Thelonious” opens the recording with Scott Robinson doing double duty on trumpet and tenor saxophone on this up tempo number. Kimbrough’s piano is fully engaged with his energetic attack. This number is considered to be one of Monk’s first masterpieces.

“Humph” is one of Monk’s lesser known numbers, but it is worth mentioning due to its thematic use of the whole tone scale, and the interplay between Kimbrough’s piano and Robinson’s tenor sax.

Another of the trumpet/tenor sax efforts by Scott Robinson is “Bright Mississippi” a laconic swinger supported by forceful bass playing by Rufus Reid. Kimbrough’s piano opens the number with some Monkish minor second dissonances. This number, like many of Monk’s compositions, is  an abstraction based on popular music song forms such as AABA tunes like Sweet Georgia Brown in this instance.

One of Monk’s most influential ballads is the lovely “Ruby, My Dear” in which he employs up and down chordal phrases that differ from his usual linear style. Kimbrough and Robinson have captured this shimmering harmonization to glorious effect. “Little Rootie Tootie”, showcases Robinson on bass saxophone which gives the number a very different sound and feel. Kimbrough’s solo section captures the rhythmic locomotion to push the number ahead.

“Misterioso” opens with some single note intervals from Kimbrough, and the notes are again repeated in unison by Kimbrough and Robinson on contrabass sarrusophone ( sounds like a pregnant baritone sax). This repeated interval phrasing is a technique used by Monk to give the number a playful appeal, which was made all the more engaging by the unusual reed choice of Robinson.

Portrait Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk,
by William P. Gottleib

“In Walked Bud” was written in honour of pianist Bud Powell. It  is another one of those abstractions of the popular song form AABA, where Monk has altered the standard harmonic progressions of, in this case, Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies. Robinson has opted for a bass saxophone which gives the number an interesting depth and works surprisingly well with Kimbrough’s crunchy attack. 

Perhaps Monk”s most famous composition is “‘Round Midnight”. It certainly appears to be most performed composition in any event. The band offers a compelling rendition that is faithful to Monk’s intent. It opens with a run through of the theme by bassist Rufus Reid supported by light mallet striking of the cymbal by Billy Drummond. Robinson’s tenor and Kimbrough’s piano then do an extrapolation again of the theme. Monk had written the composition in a manner that has structural integrity, despite its harmonic twists, and a paucity of notes.

When Monk composed “Brilliant Corners” in 1956, the writing was so complex it proved to be a challenge to play. With its alternating choruses at twice the tempo, this was an innovation that had not previously been ventured. This composition has not shown itself to be an unsurmountable obstacle to Kimbrough and Robinson. In fact Robinson has chosen to play the bass saxophone as he riffs off the theme, and Kimbrough runs through the stuttering tempos fearlessly.

Monk never seemed to get tired of using the chord changes of I Got Rhythm and it formed the basis of one of his best known pieces “Rhythm-a-Ning”. It opens with a couple of bars of drumming from Billy Drummond. This is followed by some unison playing between Robinson’s bass saxophone and Kimbrough’s piano, which segues into a three note riff with the last note given some extra weight. The number continues to evolve with an extended solo from Kimbrough using a common harmonic bebop pattern, before giving way to Robinson’s burning solo turn. There are some high energy exchanges between drummer Drummond, Kimbrough, and Robinson before the band takes the tune out.

The two solo turns by Frank Kimbrough are “Crepuscule with Nellie” and “Functional”. The former number was written for Monk’s wife Nellie and bears all the hallmarks of a Monk composition. Played as a distinctively poignant ballad by Kimbrough, he employs  the requisite dissonances and pauses which give his compositions their uniqueness. The latter number is different thematically, but is offered in the slower tempo favoured by Monk.   It has a blues feel with some stride piano undercurrents. Both numbers have a fundamental coherence even though they may appear to be off-center.

To sum up, this quartet has recorded the gold standard of Thelonious Monk’s music.

TrackList: 
CD1 Thelonious: Thelonious; Light Blue; Played Twice; Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are; Ask Me Now; Humph; Bright Mississippi; Reflections; Bemsha Swing; Teo; Blue Sphere

CD2 Think Of One : Crepuscule With Nellie; Think Of One; 52nd St. Theme; Eronel; Bluehawk; Little Rootie Tootie; Two Timer; Ruby, My Dear; Boo Boo’s Birthday; San Francisco Holiday; Functional; I Mean You

CD3 Brake’s Sake:  Shuffle Boil; Monk’s Dream; Evidence; Misterioso; Four In One; Brake’s Sake; Pannonica; Bye-Ya; North Of The Sunset; Introspection; We See; In Walked Bud

CD4 Locomotive: Nutty; Trinkle Tinkle; Blues Five Spot; ‘Round Midnight; Jackie-ing; Well You Needn’t; Sixteen; Locomotive; Gallop’s Gallop; Children’s Song; Blue Monk; Friday The 13th

CD5 Off Minor: Criss Cross; Raise Four; Let’s Call This; Who Knows; A Merrier Christmas; Stuffy Turkey; Monk’s Point; Work; Brilliant Corners; Off Minor; Hackensack; Oska T

CD6 Coming On The Hudson: Let’s Cool One; Hornin’ In; Coming On The Hudson; Straight No Chaser; Monk’s Mood; Green Chimneys; Rhythm-A-Ning; Ugly Beauty; Skippy; Something In Blue; Epistrophy

—Pierre Giroux