It's been 35 years since we lost Thelonious Monk, one of the 20th century's great artists. The man who thrilled jazz fans all over the world with his wholly novel approach to the piano has grown more deeply appreciated with each reissue.
This latest — a box set of five 10-inch albums recorded for Prestige Records between 1952 and 1954 — capture Monk at a challenging time both personally and professionally. Despite their obvious brilliance, these sessions didn't receive their due at the time. His progress was further complicated by the loss of his New York City Cabaret Card, stripped from Monk as a result of his refusal to testify against a friend facing drug charges. It was years (crucial years in retrospect) before Monk could play again in a New York City nightclub.
Disc one, released as Thelonious, features Gary Mapp on bass and drum performances from both Art Blakey and Max Roach. "Sweet and Lovely" and "These Foolish Things" are both terrific. "Reflections," though, is the track that showcases the man's extraordinary timing and distinctive style.
"Let's Call This" headlines disc two, released as Thelonious Monk Quintet Blows for LP. The three-piece album features Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone, Julius Watkins on French horn, Percy Heath on bass and Willie Jones on drums.
Disc three, featuring Monk's smooth, romantic take on "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," is unforgettable. Blakey's back on drums, and he bolsters a fine trumpet performance by Ray Copeland; Frank Foster is on tenor sax and Curly Russell is on bass. Thelonious Monk Plays was the original title of disc four, recorded with Heath and Blakey. It's best remembered for "Blue Monk."
Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk rounds out the five-disc collection. The shared bill was decided upon after the session, for reasons that are abundantly clear. Rollins' tenor sax is spellbinding right from the start. Tommy Potter is on bass and Art Taylor's on drums.
Each of the records was recorded at the famed Van Gelder Studio in Hackensack, New Jersey. They've been beautifully restored and remastered by Joe Tarantino. Craft Recordings have done a nice job with the original packaging and new notes from Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.
Monk would have turned 100 years old this year. This excellent collection is a timely reminder of how much he's missed. (Craft Recordings)