Listen to this track by jazz piano innovator and famous eccentric Thelonious Monk along with his equally celebrated musical partner by the time this was recorded, John Coltrane. It’s “Monk’s Mood”, a cut that would appear on the bona fide buried treasure Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane Live At Carnegie Hall.
This rendition of the song was cut live at the famous venue (how do you get there? Practice, man, practice …) at the tail end of 1957 in two sets on the same night. During several months that same year, Monk and Coltrane collaborated in a quartet along with bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and drummer Shadow Wilson. Monk had cut this tune in trio form in the studio with Coltrane (along with bassist Wilbur Ware) on his otherwise-solo piano album Thelonious Himself earlier that same year in April.
By the time they recorded the Carnegie Hall date, the band had Monk’s famously idiosyncratic composition style down pat, with amazing clarity and precise musical alignment particularly between him and Coltrane. This piece is like a dance between sax and piano, with steps that may be odd in places, but are always elegant. The most amazing part of all of this was that this music was almost not heard at all outside of the live audience who attended the date, and certainly not because the music isn’t absolutely sublime. Before a wider audience could hear it, it needed to be found – literally.
Monk and Coltrane were only in a quartet together for a short and not very well documented time. Monk was an established master by then, just coming back to playing club dates in New York City after a period in exile. He’d stood up for his friend Bud Powell on some drug charges by refusing to testify against him. For Monk’s trouble the authorities took away his cabaret card. That meant that he couldn’t play anywhere in New York where they served alcohol, which by the 1950s was a big segment of the venues where modern jazz was played. But by 1957, he was back and at a high point in his career playing The Five Spot Café in the Bowery, where Monk, with Coltrane as a full member of his quartet, had a six-month residency.
Coltrane had problems with drugs and had been fired by Miles Davis as a result. During his stint with Monk, the saxophonist was moving away from that former life, and toward the spiritual journey that would characterize his life and his music for the next ten years. Both men were on the upswing. By 1958 though, Johnny Griffin sat in Coltrane’s chair in the Monk quartet when Coltrane reunited with Miles Davis in January of that year. For many years, there were no official recordings to document this crucial artistic period in the lives of Monk and Coltrane together in a live setting at all.
That was, until 2005.
Archivist for the Library of Congress and a specialist in jazz recordings Larry Applebaum was working his way through a stack of old tapes in order to digitize them. During his work, he stumbled upon this incredible find.
“I was thumbing through some tapes awaiting digitization in early 2005 when I noticed eight 10-inch acetate reels of tape labeled ‘Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957.’ I examined the reels and noticed one of the tape boxes had a hand-written note on the back that said ‘T. Monk’ with some song titles. When we played the tape I recognized the sound of John Coltrane playing tenor saxophone with Monk’s quartet and my heart started racing. The identification of the players was confirmed when I heard Willis Conover’s M.C. announcements on the tapes.” Conover was the M.C. at the concert as well as the host of the radio program. But as it turns out, the concert was most likely never broadcast–or at least there is no evidence that it was–another reason that no tapes were found until now. (read the whole article)
The concert had been recorded by Voice of America, a wing of the US government broadcasting externally to American nationals while also attempting to undercut the influence of communist regimes during the Cold War, among other things. Hey, it was the fifties. Other than the initial motives for making them, it’s difficult to put the significance of these recordings in direct comparative terms. The greats of jazz moved around and worked in each other’s bands all the time in a way that rock musicians don’t, or didn’t. But Monk and Coltrane were true giants in their field. To hear them play together on such a pristine recording and at high points in both of their careers is like a gift from above.
Besides all that of course, this opening cut, “Monk’s Mood”, is just chock full of personality flowing particularly from the two soloists. Monk was an established jazz pioneer even then, particularly in the realm of chord structure and harmonics. He was known for adding flourishes and tightly grouped chords that, were you to look at them on a chart, would probably seem like chaotic ravings. His music is certainly idiosyncratic and even eccentric. But then so was Monk, known for getting up from his stool during a live number and dancing around, sometimes to the bar, or to the kitchen to chat with the cooks, and sometimes even out the front door of the club and down the street. That sense of the unpredictable comes out in the music. It’s joyful, and singularly beautiful too. It’s certainly moody, full of shadows and light while never seeming to settle on either.
The great part is that Coltrane, a distinctive and singular soloist in his own right, just slots in there after Monk’s long intro, bringing a level of lyricism that grounds Monk’s wandering musical attention span. One’s ear falls in line as the two men find common ground between them. Pretty soon, its a fluid dance between between Monk’s cascading piano and ‘Trane’s contemplative tenor and the whole thing takes shape. It is amazing that there are so few recordings of these two men playing together, and such a marvelous blessing that we have this slice of time in which they did.
To learn more about this historic recording, take a look at this review at The Guardian.