Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 109: Thelonious Monk

Perhaps the only thing better than listening to Thelonious Monk is listening to Monk play with someone who really gets him, who is in perfect harmony with Monk's moods and Monk's ideas and Monk's tempi. That's why it's such a moment of pure satisfaction to hear the tenor sax take his solo at around 2:20 of "We See," and realize that yes, yes, he's got it, and he gets Monk.

And sometimes -- as was the case this time -- you listen to the music before you read the set notes, and then you go back to check the personnel, and the identity of Monk's soulmate both surprises and delights you.

If there's any musician who is inextricably connected with one bandleader, it would be Frank Foster and Count Basie. Foster played with a variety of musicians who encompassed a variety of styles, but it's hard to think of him without thinking of Basie. He joined the Count in 1953, the year before this session with Monk, and his final bow as leader of the Count Basie Orchestra came in 1995.

But listen to him here, especially on "We See," which may be my favorite, by a close margin, of four great cuts. Foster and Ray Copeland play the head in a jaunty fashion -- swing filtered through Monk. Monk takes an extended solo, with some powerful assistance by Art Blakey and Curly Russell, and then close to two and a half minutes in, Foster hits with his solo, and there's no way to miss being struck by how right it is. Ray Copeland follows -- and he's right too -- and then Foster again.

I should say something about Copeland, too. He was one of the unsung but in-demand sidemen of this era, and later a valued jazz educator before his early death in 1984. He had played with Monk before, and was supposed to be on the earlier Prestige date with Sonny Rollins and Julius Watkins.

I love to hear Monk's originals -- he's one of the greatest jazz composers -- and I love to hear him play standards. "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" has it all. Great work with the melody, great ensemble work, completely unexpected and always appropriate piano work from Monk, beautiful solos by the others.

"Locomotive" builds of a "Now's the Time"-reminiscent riff. "Hackensack" is a tribute to Rudy Van Gelder's hometown,  and Van Gelder comes through on this entire session, making every instrument clear and vivid (you really get a sense of how good Curly Russell is). "Hackensack" has a blistering solo by Copeland, and a wonderfully creative solo by Blakey.
But finally, the lasting impression from these four tunes is: for all Monk's deserved reputation as an eccentric genius and iconoclast, he was one hell of a bandleader. These arrangements, the unison parts, the way Monk counterpoints the unison parts, the way he sets up the others for their solos...just listen.

These were released on a 10-inch and a couple of 12-inch LPs, Monk and We See.

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