Monk’s Music, originally recorded in 1957 and released in 1958 on Riverside, is now being reissued as part of Concord’s Jazz Classics Remasters series. The album, featuring a septet that includes dual tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, Gigi Gryce on alto, trumpeter Ray Copeland, bassist Wilbur Ware, and the formidable Art Blakey on drums, also finds the brilliant and elusive Monk thoroughly at the height of his powers.
Monk’s Music also captures the short recording partnership of Monk and Coltrane, the latter of whom, in 1957, had yet to explode. Coltrane had recently gotten off drugs, following his ouster from Miles’ Quintet. Another Riverside album, Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane: The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings, chronicles the two masters’ seven months of studio work together, but Monk’s Music no doubt shows their kinship in full regalia. The album also presents the interesting juxtaposition of Coltrane and Hawkins – one’s career entirely ahead, one’s mostly behind – and both going all in with their chips, all day long.
Working with such a talented roster, the best bits are still the minimal, stripped sections where Monk’s sparse counterpoint backs up a soloist, along with Art Blakey’s prodding drums. It’s the way Monk falls in and out of the horn solos that makes the music truly come to life.
On the 11-minute “Well, You Needn’t,” Monk takes the first solo, which begins single-note driven, but spreads out into pure Monk weirdness in short time. He adds some filigree later on, before shouting “Coltrane” as the tenorist grabs the song’s first horn solo, which Monk backs up mysteriously with odd rhythmic and melodic figures. After Blakey and Ware take turns at working out the song, Hawkins steps in for a triumphant flight, with Monk sitting in right alongside with foreboding and off-kilter piano stabs.
Hawk gets the Monk chestnut “Ruby, My Dear” all to himself. He gets to say all he’s got to say, without worrying about the young Turks, and reaches deep down into his horn’s register, but pulls out the highs too. Hawk gets panned mostly left, with Monk on the right – making for a nice mix.
On “Off Minor,” after the opening theme, Hawk takes a deep and throaty solo, followed by Copeland’s sassy trumpet bit, while Coltrane’s squeaky solo on “Epistrophy” is that song’s standout.
“Crepuscule With Nellie” ends the original record. It was the only new composition on Monk’s Music, basically a solo Monk take, with brushwork by Blakey, and careful bass from Ware. With its broken rhythms, “Crepuscule” (French for “twilight”) proved a difficult tune to record. Two outtakes are pieced together here as a bonus track, and it’s clear the band is still putting the pieces together. But by the sixth take, which made the original cut and is presented here, the crew had nailed it. The horns step in after two minutes for a somber dirge that’s got the rare beauty of a New Orleans jazz funeral.