Ed Driscoll

The Loneliest Monk

John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk were two jazz masters who only played together (in Monk’s quartet) for five months in 1957. For almost 50 years, there were no commercial recordings documenting the pairing. That all changed today, according to Zan Stewart of Newark, NJ’s Star-Ledger:

The release this Tuesday of the quartet’s stunningly vivid, deeply musical performance at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 29, 1957 — to be issued as “Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall” on Thelonious Records, distributed by Blue Note Records — is a bona fide marquee jazz event.

The CD is presented in startlingly clear, you-are-there audio, as a jazz master, his disciple — a jazz master-to-be — and their cohorts, bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and drummer Shadow Wilson, play with emotion, passion, depth and blazing-hard swing on several of Monk’s superb originals and one pop standard.

Monk, then 40, and Coltrane, 31, both jump-started their careers in that band. Monk, a founder of modern jazz, had returned to prominence with the Five Spot gig (he had had his cabaret card, necessary to play in most New York nightspots, revoked from 1951-57). Coltrane, known for his work with Miles Davis from 1955-57, had recently quit both heroin and drinking. Both men were creatively revitalized.

Their portion of the concert — a benefit for the now-defunct Morningside Community Center in Harlem that also spotlighted Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Billie Holiday and others — consisted of two sets, approximately 25 minutes each. The sets are complete on the CD, save a fade toward the end of the last number of the second set.

The setlist included the opening Monk ballad, “Monk’s Mood,” a mix of tenderness and ardor; the bustling “Blue Monk,” with romping improvisations from the leader and his saxophonist; the majestic “Crepuscule with Nellie,” dedicated to Monk’s wife; and the evergreen “Sweet and Lovely,” outfitted with an arrangement where Coltrane again unleashes streams of notes, unveiling a style that was later dubbed “sheets of sound.”

Throughout, Monk the pianist is stunning, playing with dynamism, invention and commanding sound, a performance that should forever silence those who have said he was not a top-rate pianist, or that he lacked technique.

How this recording — originally taped by the Voice of America (the U.S. Government’s international multimedia broadcast service) but apparently never broadcast — was unearthed is a story that unfolded gradually.

Read the rest.

(Also on Blogcritics.)