Sunday, June 21, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 121 - Thelonious Monk

On a technical note, we just got a new car, with Bluetooth connectability to the speaker system, and I finally figured out how to play Spotify through it, so I'm back to my old pattern of driving and listening to a Prestige session. This gives me some serious listening time, as one short drive generally lets me listen to a whole session through twice, and a series of short drives over a couple of days (I live in the country and have a young teenage grandson, so this is the way most of my days go) gives me a real opportunity to spend the kind of time I like with a session.

Especially fortunate that this all got worked out in time for this session, because if you're setting aside some time to spend with these four songs, you're going to need to allow for the circumstance that at first, all you're going to want to do is listen to "Blue Monk." It's that magical.

So many of Monk's greatest compositions were introduced in his recordings of this era for Prestige and Blue Note. Don't forget what it was that inspired Bob Weinstock to start his own record label. He was a 19-year-old kid in his first business venture, running a record store next to the Metropole in Times Square. The Metropole was a home to trad jazz, and that was what Weinstock sold -- on 78, of course.  Until...
One day Alfred Lion, who ran Blue Note Records, came in and said, “I have something new: Thelonious Monk." I said, “What the hell's that?" Alfred said, “It's bebop." I listened to it and the more I listened, I realized it had a charm to it. It was interesting. I was strictly into swing at the time. Beboppers were calling people like us moldy figs. The next thing I knew, I became obsessed with bebop. I was attracted like a magnet...
I got curious as to some of the recording debuts of classic Monk tunes, so here are a few:

Blue Note 1947
  • Ruby, My Dear
  • Well, You Needn't
  • Round Midnight
  • In Walked Bud
Blue Note 1948
  • Misterioso
  • Epistrophy
Blue Note 1951
  • Straight No Chaser
Prestige 1951
  • Little Rootie Tootie
  • Bye-Ya
  • Monk's Dream
Prestige 1952
  • Trinkle Tinkle
  • Bemsha Swing
Prestige 1953
  • Think of One

Prestige 1954
  • We See
  • Blue Monk
Does that say something about (a) how important Monk was, and (b) how important these two jazz labels were?

 Anyway, I did finally start listening to the whole set, all the way through -- three Monk originals, with Percy Heath and Art Blakey, and one standard, on which Monk plays solo. "Nutty" and "Work" both have little melodic hints of what would coalesce in "Blue Monk."

Thoughts: on all of the trio tunes, there are extended bass and drum solos, which has not exactly been a hallmark of earlier Prestige sessions. Perhaps we can take this as a tribute to Rudy Van Gelder's increasing confidence in his engineering skills.

And this is all great stuff. A drum solo with a Thelonious Monk trio, on Thelonious Monk tunes, is not exactly going to be a Buddy Rich drum solo, no disrespect to Buddy. Blakey integrates his own propulsive rhythmic mastery with Monk's unique approach to rhythm -- no mean feat, in a drum solo.

When I was young and pretentious, and I went out to jazz clubs, I used to always quietly disapprove of people who applauded at the end of a solo. I wanted to hear the transition, as one soloist handed the ball off to another. I've since learned that you can never have too much applause, that the soloist deserves it, that it's part of the spontaneity of live music. And you can listen to those transitions on the record.

Which I do. I've always been fascinated, in art, in music, in writing, by what happens when something is in the process of stopping being one thing and starting to be another.

And there are some great moments here. In "Nutty," when Blakey's solo seems to rise in pitch at the end, and Monk picks it up at the apex. In "Work," the handoff from Blakey to Heath to Monk.

And all the way through, there are great moments between Monk and Percy Heath. Heath's solos, his dialogs with Monk, their duets, with both instruments threading lines around each other. Outside of the melody of "Blue Monk," these may be my favorite parts of the session.

Finally, there's Monk's short, song-length, unaccompanied take on "Just a Gigolo."

Artists strike out for the deep end in all sorts of ways. If you had been invited out to Rudy Van Gelder's studio in Hackensack to record four songs, and you'd been given Percy Heath and Art Blakey to accompany you, would you do the first three, and then say "Take the rest of the afternoon off, fellas, I'm doing this one on my own"?

Of course, it might not have happened that way. Maybe the session ran long, and Percy and Art had a gig in the city. Or maybe they showed up late, and Monk decided to start without them. But those seem less likely. Monk knew what he was doing when he recorded solo, and he was generally right.

"Blue Monk" was released on a 45 with "Bye-Ya" on the flip. All four cuts were on a 10-inch, Thelonious Monk Trio. "Blue Monk" and "Just a Gigolo" were put on a 12-inch of the same title with the 1952 trio sessions, and the same grouping was rereleased as Monk's Moods. "Work" and "Nutty" joined "Friday the Thirteenth" from Monk's November 1953 session with Sonny Rollins, and a couple of tunes from a later session with Rollins, as Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, and this album was also rereleased under a different title, Work. The two earlier releases were from the 7000 series in 1957, the later rereleases from the 7100 series in 1959. And of course, there are a number of later reissues.

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