Hippo Manchester
November 3, 2005

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Pop Culture: Finding the Holy Grail of jazz

Newly discovered recording sheds light on one of greatest partnerships in Jazz history

By Dan Szczesny   dszczesny@hippopress.com

This year’s best album was recorded nearly 50 years ago.

Last February, while thumbing through some dusty old Voice of America acetate tapes in the Library of Congress, a lab supervisor came across a handwritten note taped to one of the reels: “T. Monk.”

On it was most of the now-legendary two-part set played by Thelonious Monk’s quartet at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 29, 1957. That set has been released by Blue Note and Thelonious Records as Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall.

The concert, a benefit show for Morningside Community Center, was a watershed moment for jazz featuring an incredible bill that included Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins and Miss Billy Holiday. The concert also featured two 25-minute sets with the Thelonious Monk Quartet with then relative newcomer John Coltrane.

What makes this recording such a find, aside from the always-fantastic acoustics offered by Carnegie Hall, is the level of awe and respect given to this particular quartet. For about six months starting in July 1957, Coltrane joined Monk’s band for an extended gig at New York’s Five Spot. The band also featured Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass and Shadow Wilson on drums.  

This is the quartet that jazz fans speak of in hushed whispers – a band where being able to say you were at one of their gigs is the equivalent of saying you were at the original Woodstock or at Newport when Bob Dylan went electric. What makes the quartet all the more mysterious, and this new CD all the more incredible, is that they were never recorded. In fact, aside from three studio songs, Monk and Coltrane never recorded together. So, in essence, the Carnegie Hall recording is simply the only recording of these two masters – Monk at the peak of his maturity as a musician and composer, Coltrane as a young genius ready to explode into a legend.

When Monk invited Coltrane to join his band in early 1957, Coltrane had just been fired by Miles Davis and was steeped in drug and alcohol problems. The firing humiliated Coltrane, but also turned him around.

Further, Coltrane was able to learn under the tutelage of Monk, a patient and spiritual musician more willing to be a mentor than Davis had been. At the same time, Monk’s Five Spot gig was the first for him in more than five years. In 1951 he had been falsely arrested for narcotics possession and stripped of his cabaret card, a police-issued license of the time that allowed him to perform in New York clubs that served alcohol. When he got that license back, he was hungry to play.

So, when Coltrane joined Monk’s band, both musicians were out to prove something to themselves and to their fans. And that quartet, which played two or three times a week together, became one of the tightest and most heralded in jazz folklore.

It was an unlikely pairing. Monk was a notoriously difficult lead man. His piano playing style is jagged and nearly avant-garde for the time. Coltrane on the other hand is known for smooth transitions and pitch-perfect solos.

But with the Carnegie Hall concert, it finally becomes clear how the two musicians were perfectly suited for each other. Every one of the nine songs is a dynamic and adventurous exploration, and they are very much in sync. 

Because of the limited time allowed for the sets, there are no drum or bass solos, and Coltrane double-times nearly every solo, creating what jazz critics of the time called a “wall of sound,” running scales at a rate that nearly makes the individual notes blur into the larger pattern. It was a style Coltrane used later, first while helping Davis record the greatest jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue, and later while creating his own masterpiece, A Love Supreme.

At the Carnegie Hall show, Monk the teacher gives his talented student ample creative room. But it’s clearly his band, and his music. Monk sets the tone for the whole CD on the first track, “Monk’s Mood.” On it, the dialogue between Monk and Coltrane is clear, with Monk playing deeply felt arpeggios and runs underneath Coltrane’s casual interpretation of the theme.

On “Crepuscule With Nellie” Coltrane shadows Monk’s theme with eerie tonal solos that creep around the piano lines giving the whole piece an almost dark, rainy-day feel.

Throughout both sets, Monk is constantly prodding and poking at Coltrane, shifting rhythms on “Sweet and Lovely” to create urgency and expectation, and forcing Coltrane to think on the fly as the sax man works hard to follow the constantly shifting melody.

Finally, in the final full song of the album, “Blue Monk,” both men explore the blues. Coltrane begins the melody in a minor tone, giving the whole piece a deeper feel. Coltrane’s solo on “Blue Monk” is an explosion of sound, like he’s a musician desperate to be heard. And when Monk brings Coltrane back with his own casual solo, it allows Abdul-Malik a rare chance to shine with a aggressive bass run behind Monk’s high-note piano lines.

The Carnegie Hall album is not either man’s individual best work, but it is an amazing snapshot of how Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane’s names became synonymous with jazz and how two of jazz music’s greatest innovators approached their art.