About this Recording
8.120673 - MONK, Thelonious: Let's Cool One (1950-1952)

‘Let’s Cool One’ Original Recordings 1950-1952

Jazz has usually been a music that has celebrated its great individualists, the innovators who choose to go their own way and be themselves rather than follow musical trends. However even in the liberal atmosphere of jazz, some brilliant musicians get overlooked or misinterpreted and spend years being neglected. That was the case for Thelonious Sphere Monk.

Even during the bebop era, a period when jazz was moving forward quickly, Monk was ahead of the crowd and considered by many to be too ‘far out’ to be taken seriously. His piano playing was not in the dominant Bud Powell style and seemed to look forwards and backwards in time simultaneously while his compositions were thought of as too difficult to play. Monk would have to wait for the jazz world to catch up to him.

Thelonious Monk was born 10 October 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, growing up in New York City. He began playing piano when he was six and was initially influenced by both the masterful stride pianist James P. Johnson and the influential swing stylist Teddy Wilson. Monk’s first professional job was going on the road with an evangelist, accompanying her sermons. He was a member of the house band at Minton’s Playhouse during 1940-43, participating in many jam sessions that helped lead to the music soon called ‘bebop’. During this time, Monk pared down his style drastically, developing fresh new chord voicings, developing an unpredictable and percussive approach, and using space and silence dramatically. The Cootie Williams Orchestra became the first to record a couple of his compositions, “Epistrophy” (which became Monk’s theme song) in 1942 and “’Round Midnight” two years later.

Monk worked for a few months with Lucky Millinder’s orchestra in 1942 and made his recording debut in 1944 (other than some private recordings from Minton’s) when he spent a period as pianist with tenor-saxophonist Coleman Hawkins’ quartet. While Hawkins recognized Monk’s talent from the start, as did Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, many other so-called modern jazz musicians did not understand what they were hearing, even claiming that Monk did not know how to play piano very well. Thelonious’ introverted and sometimesuncommunicative personality did not help, and he became known as an eccentric.

The 1945-54 period was a difficult one for Monk. While some of his songs, particularly “’Round Midnight,” caught on in jazz, he did not get opportunities to play in public that frequently. Monk worked during a couple of brief stints with the Dizzy Gillespie big band of the 1940s and he had occasional gigs with his trio but, by the early 1950s, he was spending most of his time at home, practising and writing new songs. It was not until 1957, when he spent the summer leading a quartet at New York’s Five Spot that featured tenor-saxophonist John Coltrane, that Monk finally had his breakthrough. Playing in a style that was unchanged from a decade earlier, he was finally recognized as a musical genius.

The music on this collection is from Monk’s neglected years. The session from 1950 was the only time that the pianist recorded with either altoist Charlie Parker or drummer Buddy Rich and it also features Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet and fine backup work from bassist Curly Russell. The ancient standard My Melancholy Baby is given a tongue-in-cheek treatment. The opening piano introduction could be by no one but Monk. Parker’s Relaxin’ With Lee (a new melody over the chord changes of “Stompin’ At The Savoy”) has inventive choruses from Parker and Gillespie along with drum breaks from Rich but Monk’s solo takes honours. Despite his brilliant playing on this date, other than two songs backing Frankie Passions, Monk made no appearances in the recording studios during 1949-50.

Alfred Lion of the Blue Note label knew early on that Thelonious Monk was a significant new voice in jazz and he recorded his first four dates as a leader during 1947-48. Selections 3–12 on this set are from two slightly later Blue Note sessions. The 23 July 1951 session (his only recordings of that year) has the debut of five of Monk’s songs plus a reworking of the standard Willow Weep For Me. Monk’s quintet features such sympathetic players as vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Al McKibbon and drummer Art Blakey, with Sahib Shihab (who would become better known as a baritonist) often in the lead on alto. Musicians who felt that Monk’s music was too difficult to play were given strong evidence during the first two numbers. Four In One is not the type of song one can perform without a bit of work but this version is definitive. Monk always believed in keeping the melody close by (in bebop the theme is often discarded during solos) and one can hear the complex lines of Criss Cross hinted at throughout this performance’s solos.

Criss Cross is one of Monk’s most advanced pieces, an original with an unpredictable but somehow logical melody and a very tricky chord sequence. It was never designed to become a standard or be sung but it is a jazz masterpiece. In contrast, Eronel (‘Lenore’ spelled backwards) has a joyful theme that cries out for lyrics. Straight No Chaser, due to being a mediumtempo blues, did become a standard. Notice how Monk’s solo is a logical outgrowth of his theme. From the same date, Ask Me Now (one of the pianist’s most memorable ballads) features Monk in a trio while Milt Jackson (who would soon join the Modern Jazz Quartet) is showcased on Willow Weep For Me.

Moving ahead a year, of the four songs that Monk performed during his final Blue Note date (not counting two others not released until decades later), only Let’s Cool One was recorded by the pianist again. Skippy is remarkably complex, with the chords changing every two beats and the melody matching Criss Cross in its difficulty. Tenor-saxophonist Lucky Thompson and trumpeter Kenny Dorham fare well but only Monk really masters the composition. The same can be said for Hornin’ In, which also has a spot for altoist Lou Donaldson and has a mysterious feel to the melody and the unusual voicings. Throughout his career, Monk enjoyed taking vintage tunes and altering them in unexpected ways. Carolina Moon, which was written in 1919, is turned into a double-time waltz. Monk’s Let’s Cool One is a contrast to most of his other tunes in that it is one of the most singable of all of his compositions.

Completing this collection are eight selections including six Monk tunes, performed by the pianist in 1952 in trios with bassist Gary Mapp and either Art Blakey or Max Roach on drums. Little Rootie Tootie (with its humorous dissonance), Bye Ya, Monk’s Dream, Trinkle Tinkle and the catchy Bemsha Swing would become permanent parts of Monk’s repertoire while Reflections would slip into obscurity. Sweet And Lovely and These Foolish Things are heard in particularly unique yet melodic versions that show what Monk could do to 1930s standards.

After his long overdue discovery in 1957, Monk became an unlikely celebrity, touring the world in the 1960s with his quartet and appearing on the cover of Time Magazine in 1964. But after working with Dizzy Gillespie in a sextet called The Giants Of Jazz in 1971-72 and making a final series of recordings, Monk retired and little was heard from him during the decade preceding his 17 February 1982 death at age 64.

Since his passing, Thelonious Monk has again been rediscovered, his compositions extensively explored and his music regarded as the work of a highly individual genius. He is actually more famous today than he was during his lifetime and his music, as evidenced by the recordings on this reissue, are as timeless as ever.

Scott Yanow
author of 8 jazz books including Jazz On Film, Swing, Bebop, Trumpet Kings and Jazz On Record 1917-76

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