June 21, 2017

Monk and Coltrane – Definitive Performances


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 a few years become known as modern jazz or bebop.

About this time, Monk had also started composing his own music. Monk’s angular, dissonant, melodically original and sometimes down right somber compositions were initially met with bewilderment. Simply put, Monk’s music was too advanced for audiences of the late 1940s and early ‘50s. But just a few years later, when Monk signed with Riverside Records, what had begun as incomprehensible and strange suddenly started to make musical sense.

Riverside cannily introduced Monk to a wider public with piano trio and solo LPs styled to introduce Monk’s basic approach, while, in subsequent records, slowly getting record buyers used to the pianist’s innovative edge. To do this, Monk needed a full band — one that could keep up with his unique, idiosyncratic compositions. After trying alto saxophonist Ernie Henry and tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins on his Brilliant Corners LP, Thelonious Monk found the saxophonist he needed. That his new saxophonist needed Monk just as badly made their brief collaboration all the more intense.

At the time, John Coltrane was coming off a very low point in his life. Having lost his position with Miles Davis’ quintet due to a debilitating narcotics addiction, Coltrane found himself in need of a new gig. Monk brought a newly clean and sober Coltrane into his own group at the moment that Coltrane would regain his musical powers and begin his rise to iconic status in the jazz world. Their collaboration was very brief (just four studio dates over a three-month period), but would constitute artistic breakthroughs for both musicians.

The recordings Monk and Coltrane made together in this short period were initially scattered over several Monk albums as well as the jam session compilation Blues for Tomorrow. Now collected together in one three LP set as Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane – The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings (Craft Recordings 00001), everything that Monk and Coltrane recorded together in a studio setting shows these two giants at pivotal moments in their careers.

The only track recorded at their first session together on April 12th, “Monk’s Mood,” was clearly a paid audition for Coltrane. The remainder of the LP that would be released as Thelonious Himself had been recorded several days earlier. Coltrane clearly aced his tryout. Producer Orrin Keepnews states in his liner notes that when they finished recording the tune, Keepnews rushed from the control room into the studio hoping to sign Coltrane to a contract with Riverside. Too late as it turned out, for Coltrane had signed with rival Prestige Records just three weeks before.

Monk now knew he had a star soloist who could not only correctly play his compositions, but could carry any group that Monk could assemble. And two months later the group Monk assembled would create what is arguably his masterpiece.

Recorded over two sessions (June 25th and 26th, 1957), the music recorded by Monk, Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Ray Copeland, Gigi Gryce, Wilbur Ware and Art Blakey is simply the definitive set of Monk group performances. “Well You Needn’t,” “Crepuscule with Nellie,” “Epistrophy” and “Off Minor” were recorded by Monk on multiple LPs over the years, but these renditions will literally etch themselves into your head, causing you to forget any of the other versions that Monk would record in the ensuing decades.

Presented here with alternate and fragmented versions as well as false starts, the master takes of these tunes would become the classic album Monk’s Music.

In what would turn out to be their last studio session together, Monk brought Coltrane back for a quartet date the following month. The session would yield only three tracks — “Ruby My Dear,” “Nutty” and “Trinkle Tinkle” — but each tune would confirm the promise that Monk heard when Coltrane joined him just three months earlier on “Monk’s Mood.”

By the time of this last session with Monk, John Coltrane was well into making his own recordings for Prestige. Though the two would play live together through the end of 1957, contract restrictions and other factors eliminated any possibility of a studio re-union. It may have taken only three months to record The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings, but the music laid down that year will be listened to for centuries.

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


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