(Thelonious Monk, piano & celeste; Ernie Henry, alto sax; Sonny Rollins, tenor sax; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Max Roach, drums & timpani)
It looks like this was the third album Monk recorded for Riverside, after he had been taken from the Prestige label who let him out of his contract with them for only payment of a $108 advance they had given him. After a solo Ellington LP and another of only standards, producer Orrrin Keepnews set up the Brilliant Corners session at Reeves – an alternate studio in NYC to Rudy Van Gelder’s living room studio. The dates were October & December 1956 and this is a mono CD.
In his detailed notes on the session Keepnews reveals that he had some trepidation about working with another engineer and studio after the great results Van Gelder always produced. He also credits his working relationship with Monk and Riverside as essentially the foundation stone of his entire long-running career in jazz. It’s fascinating to read Keepnews’ recollections of what went on during the sessions – the little spats between performers and others. For example, bassist Pettiford was mad at Monk at one point and demonstrated so by pantomiming his playing – so the engineer went nuts trying to figure out where connections or amps had failed! There were some problems with saxist Henry too, but things were worked out and this is surely one of Monk’s most brilliant sessions. Sonny Rollins adds a lot to the mix – I venture he was superior to Charlie Rouse.
Both Pannonica and Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are were brand new Monk tunes, written to honor his friend the Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter. The second was simply the way Monk pronounced the name of the NYC hotel where the Baroness was headquartered. Both Pannonica and Bemsha Swing benefit from some unusual instrumentation, due to the players having discovered some orchestral instruments in the new studio which were not likely to grace Van Gelder’s living room: a celeste and a set of timpani. (Reeves Studio recorded radio and TV jingles during the day, and the instruments were probably for that.) Monk tried out the Sugar Plum Fairy instrument and liked it – I’ll bet he’d never touched one before. He had it moved next to his piano and used its tinkling sounds to great effect in Pannonica. (He should have done his Trinkle, Tinkle on the celeste while he was at it!) Max Roach was intrigued by the timpani, naturally, and used them in the closing Bemsha Swing. (Not that unique: Red Nichols and others had used them decades earlier.)
I compared his new “24-bit” (though of course that’s impossible) standard CD remastering with the earlier Fantasy SACD reissue. Yes, the SACD is somewhat more detailed and impactful, but the difference is a small one, and considering the CD is about half the price those without a SACD deck are not missing that much.
TrackList: Brilliant Corners, Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are, Pannonica, I Surrender Dear, Bemsha Swing, bonus of opening only of Pannonica.
– John Henry