There's a lot of hype for this recently unearthed (at the Library of Congress) Voice of America tape of two short sets as part of a November 29, 1957 benefit. It may sound like exaggeration. But not when you hear the music. Background: Thelonious Monk was one of the harmonic architects of bebop, yet never fully a bopper himself, too original and rhythmically idiosyncratic to fit into what became sleekly formulized.
He had problems with the law over drugs (and they weren't even his; he just refused to rat out their owner and took the fall himself) and thus for years was't allowed to play in New York clubs that served alcohol. When he finally got his cabaret card back and landed a residency at the Five Spot, it became the spot to be for the city's modern jazz congnoscenti. He chose as his tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, who had recently been asked to leave the Miles Davis Quintet because of drug problems of his own, but who kicked his habit and then vastly increased his musical knowledge studying with Monk. The quartet of Monk, Coltrane, bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummer Shadow Wilson became legendary, and finding a recording of them in action at the Five Spot during their six-month stand starting in July 1957 became a quest for jazz's holy grail.
Riverside Records producer Orrin Keepnews astutely captured the original quartet, albeit in the studio, on three tracks now on Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane. These were unreleased at the time, however, due to Coltrane being under contract to Prestige. And when these recordings did appear, they were not sufficiently brilliant to satisfy some fans (they're fine recordings, all first takes, but Trane was, admittedly, still finding his way in Monk's complex music at that point).
Then, in 1993, Blue Note released a live recording of Monk and Trane that the saxophonist's first wife had taped on a little portable machine. At first, nobody was sure what they had; though it was excitedly entitled Discovery! Eventually it turned out that this was a 1958 Five Spot recording where Coltrane filled in for Monk's then-current tenorman, Johnny Griffin; the later date became clear when it was realized that the bassist and drummer were Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Roy Haynes. As exciting as this album was, the sound was inferior, even after some much-needed sonic refurbishing was applied to a second edition, and some sticklers insisted that the real grail was the original quartet (although Abdul-Malik is fine in his own very different way and Haynes is, if anything, even better matched to Monk's style).
Now comes probably the best we can hope for: not from the Five Spot, admittedly, or with the talented but mercurial Ware, but in much better sound (not sterling, admittedly, but pretty good aside from a few moments of volume overload when things are muddied by distortion). And probably Coltrane's better acclimated at this point than he was in the period when Ware was in the group (Ware's last night was August 12), and the Carnegie Hall piano probably a nicer instrument than the Five Spot could boast.
From the first track, the mood is electric. Monk and Trane intertwine their lines with spontaneous brilliance on an extended "Monk's Mood" that stays a piano/sax duo until well along, when the drums and bass enter very discreetly. The energy level explodes when the full quartet pulls out all the stops on "Evidence." As was the norm, the pretty "Crepuscule with Nellie" is a piano solo at first, with the band eventually joining in solely to restate the theme simply while Monk decorates the edges. The effervescent "Nutty" launches Coltrane on an exciting solo that shows how much he had grown under Monk's tutelage, dissecting the changes but interspersing his runs and arpeggios with rhythmic punctuations (whether accents or silence) and some more lyrical moments that keep it from being merely a technical exposition. Monk then puts on an improvisational clinic of his own, improvising more thematically, deconstructing it and rebuilding. "Epistrophy" gets a fuller treatment than its usual brief statement as the theme/set-closer, though that is its function here as the first set concludes. Monk and Wilson (with an intricate semi-Latin beat on the crown of a cymbal) play with the intro briefly before the theme, followed by a probing Trane solo to which Monk provides counterpoint with imaginative interjections of dissonant chords and thematic fragments before taking off on a piano solo full of stark contrasts in register and full of pregnant pauses; when Trane returns with the theme, Monk keeps the surprises coming with some low-register chords that function like bass-drum bombs.
The late show starts with the jaunty, Latinate "Bye-Ya," with Wilson using his toms heavily. Trane's solo is in "sheets of sound," the roulades coming fast and furious. Monk's solo is nearly the opposite, playfully full of suspenseful silences. The band's only standard of the evening is the ballad "Sweet and Lovely," in Monk's familiar jangling arrangement with the piano well to the fore and the sax only adding an accompanying descending scale at key points until Trane gets to solo. He starts, atypically, by toying with the theme; it's the closest one of his improvisations this evening comes to sounding like Monk. Even when the sixteenth notes fly, they revolve around the theme, and when the rhythm section doubles the tempo and Trane really takes off, he still retains the general shape of the melody. At 9:34, this is the track that allows for the most extensive soloing (although the bass and drums still don't get any; they were held in check to keep the set short). The tempo comes back down for Monk's relatively brief solo and ornate final theme statement. Monk shoots directly into his solo intro of "Blue Monk"; when Trane enters, its in an unusual arrangement that will immediately catch the ear of the seasoned Monk fan: the sax plays a minor third under the melody instead of the usual unison. Then Coltrane gets to solo on the blues changes while Monk skitters around the keyboard. Monk's own solo is refreshingly pungent and witty, spraying startling dissonances and displaying his own underrated technique with some dazzling runs before making it all cohere again into the theme. The final bumptious "Epistrophy" is cut short for unexplained reasons (presumably the tape ran out, though thankfully not before recording a particularly impressive Trane solo), but by this point nothing can put a damper on our exhilaration.
Anybody who complains that this new discovery still isn't a good enough representation of this legendary group will likely never be satisfied. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem Magazine and CDNow.com, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals. He is a buyer at Sound Fix, a hot new record store in Williamsburg.