February 1, 2014

Thelonious Monk Returns to Paris



by Armand Lewis~

There are very few jazz composers who, when you hear their work, you know instantly whose tune you are hearing. Soloists may be easily identified by their individual sound or style, but as composers, very few are so unique that their songs are not only instantly identifiable, but should any one try to copy their approach, they invariably fail to equal their original inspiration. You may hear tunes that remind you of the flash of Charlie Parker, or the studied cool of Miles Davis, but there is only one Thelonious Monk.

Born in North Carolina in 1917, Thelonious Sphere Monk began his career while he was a teenager, playing piano with a traveling evangelist touring the southern and mid-western United States. By 1941, Monk was the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse, a Harlem nightclub where up-and-coming musicians would not only entertain, but after hours would jam, creating a new sound that would in few years become known as modern jazz or bebop.

While bop was developing, Monk played with, learned from and influenced a large number of the musicians who are credited with originating the style. Along with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and others, Monk helped develop the lightning fast, highly precise and musically dexterous sound that characterized modern music of the time. Eventually, Monk grew tired of playing fast and decided he would slow down.

This time, Monk was received as a major star and the concert was considered an important event

Monk had also started composing his own music. By the time of his first recordings – done for Blue Note in 1947 — Monk had written most of the compositions that he would ultimately write, including his most famous tune, he jazz standard “Round Midnight.” Monk’s angular, disso-nant, melodically original and sometimes down right somber compositions were often met with bewilderment and occa-sionally literal hostility. So much so, that in reviewing Monk’s first Paris appearance in 1954, critics wrote that Monk was “weird” and had “made a fool of himself.” The audience that evening apparently felt the same way.

Simply put, Thelonious Monk’s music was too advanced for audiences of the late 1940s and early ‘50s. But later on, what had begun as incomprehensible and strange suddenly started to make musical sense. By the later 1950s, the world began to understand what he was doing. Acceptance and recognition of his work quickly followed. By the early ‘60s, Monk was not only signed to a major label (Columbia), but was featured on the cover of Time magazine!

Thelonious MonkTouring also became much more musically rewarding. With his quartet featuring tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, Monk toured the world multiple times to great acclaim wherever he played — including a return to Paris in 1969. This time, Monk was received as a major star and the concert was considered an important event — at the very theater where, 15 years earlier, he was practically booed off stage.

This triumphant 1969 concert has finally been released on both audio and video. Thelonious Monk – Paris 1969 (Blue Note CD BOO1881902 or CD/DVD set BOO 1882000) presents the entire concert as videotaped for French television during what would turn out to be among Monk’s last years as a performer.

Kicking off with “I Mean You,” Monk and tenor saxophonist Rouse play a very spirited rendition along with a hastily recruited rhythm section. Literally teenagers at the time, bassist Nate Hygelund and drummer Austin “Paris” Wright were recruited for this European tour when Monk’s longtime bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley left the group for other gigs. No matter, as Hygelund and Wright both swing the way that Monk’s music required.

Monk’s classic “Straight No Chaser” is taken at a faster pace than on any other recording in memory. Noted for its quirky angular structure, the tune is played here as close to a straight bop rendition as can be imagined. Though the tune retains Monk’s unique imprint, it is a surprising re-interpretation by its composer.

“Bright Mississippi” returns to the more familiar Monk pace. Introspective and slowly deliberate, each note is registered with determined purpose. As always with Monk, the space between the notes is every bit as important as the notes themselves and here Monk and Rouse literally duel with each other over the melody and structure of the composition.

“Epistrophy” rocks with powerful rolling propulsion — building from chorus to chorus as Rouse solos over Monk’s up-tempo, driving piano. Again, Monk plays faster than one would expect from his earlier recorded versions. It’s all the rhythm section can do just to keep up.

Outside of his work with Thelonious Monk, Charlie Rouse is not particularly well known and made relatively few records under his own leadership, but his unique tenor sound and expressiveness on this set — particularly on “Bright Mississippi” and “Nutty” — prove that fame is not an indication
of talent.

“Nutty” also features an extended drum solo by guest drummer Philly Joe Jones. Watching backstage during the set, Monk called him to sit in on the tune. The veteran percussionist, who anchored Miles Davis’ original quintet, kicks everything up several notches, inspiring both Monk and Rouse to respond with renewed energy and brilliance.

This concert tour was something of a last hurrah for Thelonious Monk, who in the coming months would slow down considerably as health problems began to increase. Within a couple years, Monk would stop performing altogether. He would leave a legacy of both compositions and recordings that would continue to grow in stature; almost all of them becoming classics. This concert (available also in a two LP vinyl edition) is an extremely important addition to that legacy.


Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at


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