One of the most innovative and idiosyncratic figures in jazz history, Thelonious Monk pursued a singular artistic vision as pianist and composer. This collection brings together many of his finest recordings from the late 1940s and 1950s when he made numerous contributions to the standard jazz repertoire with a unique and unorthodox improvisational style.
Thelonious Monk was one of the most innovative and idiosyncratic figures in jazz history. Almost from the outset the pianist pursued a singular artistic vision as player and composer and played a key part in the birth of the music which emerged from New York City in the mid-1940s, which, with its new harmonic and rhythmic ideas, ultimately became known as bebop.
Born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on 10 October 1917, Thelonious Sphere Monk Jr. moved to Manhattan when he was four and lived there for the rest of his life. As a teenager, he played at rent parties, performed with a travelling evangelist, and later associated with the Harlem stride pianists - all of which helped inform his percussive playing style to a greater or lesser extent.
The earliest documentation of Monk's playing is in New York in 1941 at after- hours venues such as Minton's Playhouse where, with others, he helped to form the framework for bebop. His own recording career started unusually late for such a major figure in the music, with the first sessions taking place just days after his thirtieth birthday. However, this seemingly long gestation period produced a unique body of work and afforded Monk a well-defined repertoire of music for the rest of his professional life. Structurally these compositions rarely deviated from those common to the era but were recast with angular melodies, dissonant harmonies and oblique rhythmic patterns.
The first six pieces in this selection are from Monk's sessions for the Blue Note label (1947 -1951) and include his earliest recordings as leader. The opening 'Thelonious' sees Monks sidemen struggle to grasp his conception but, interestingly, includes a section of dissonant stride piano. A glimpse of tradition in transition, maybe, however fleeting. ''Round Midnight', which follows, was composed by Monk in 1943, and is one of his most famous and oft recorded pieces, yet is unique in his oeuvre as it conveys a mood. Two contrasting perspectives on the Blues, 'Misterioso' and 'Straight No Chaser ', together with the highly original constructs, 'Epistrophy' and 'Criss Cross', also represent the Blue Note years. As brief as all of these are, they're perfect in their concentrated, intense effect.
In late 1952 Monk began recording for Prestige Records and his pianistic talents are on full display in two trio numbers, 'Bemsha Swing' and 'Blue Monk', and also a ballad 'Just a Gigolo', a three-minute solo 'deconstruction' of a kind that only he could devise.
As famed as Monk and his compositions later became he mostly toiled in obscurity for the first part of his life and was not fully acknowledged until the second half of the 1950s. By then he had begun recording for Riverside Records and produced some of his finest work for this label, collaborating with some of the most influential musicians of that time including saxophonists John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Highlights from this period include 'Brilliant Corners', with its complex twists and turns, 'Rhythm-A-Ning' and the ballads 'Monk's Mood' and 'Ruby, My Dear'. The concluding 'Little Rootie Tootie' has a fabulous scored section based on Monk's improvised solo in the original version of the tune and, perhaps, encapsulates everything the listener needs to know about Monk's music.
The following decade saw far wider acceptance for Monk, mirrored by a Columbia recording contract and a busy concert schedule. Despite there being very few new compositions in this period, by the time of his passing in 1982 he'd long established a classic canon, many of which are included here and are a fitting tribute to Monk in 2017, his centennial year.