Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Thelonious Monk

  • Ken Burns Jazz [Columbia/Legacy, 2000] A+
  • Thelonious Monk Trio [Prestige, 2001] A+
  • Monk [Columbia/Legacy, 2002] A
  • The Best of Thelonious Monk [Riverside, 2004] ***
  • The Very Best [Blue Note, 2005] A
  • Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 [Saga/Sam, 2017] A-
  • Palo Alto [Impulse, 2020] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Ken Burns Jazz [Columbia/Legacy, 2000]
I like every album he ever made, and they do vary sonically. But Monk's piano is so distinct that from 1947 "Night in Tunisia" rewrite to 1971 "Nice Work If You Can Get It" decon this collection moves as one thing. Like Basie, Monk is a minimalist master of silence and space. But where Basie's few notes imply the full-bodied riff he's prepared for the band, Monk writes the way he plays. His tunes are spare, misshapen things that seemed bizarre in the '40s and eccentric in the '50s--and that now sound like they've always been there. Except for the late "Green Chimneys," every head singled out here is a known classic, equally potent and idiomatic whether Monk trips around trio or solo, corrals Rollins or Coltrane, or slips a little something to the boon companion of his icon years, tenor man Charlie Rouse. And then there are the wickedly timed and modulated comps that mine his sidemen's staunchest efforts. So humorous. So pointed. So on the fractal. A+

Thelonious Monk Trio [Prestige, 2001]
There's a special use value to this 10-track collection, eight from 1952 with two from 1954 mixed in, which has been reissued in more iterations and titles than I can catalogue--my copy is PR-CD-7027-2 and begins with "Little Rootie Tootie," as it should, but others reshuffle the same takes. What all offer is the not so common chance to hear Monk as a solely featured soloist with a rhythm section. Moonlighting NYC cop Gary Mapp is merely functional like so many Monk bassists, although even he has to hop around to follow the razzle-dazzle child's play of "Little Rootie Tootie," and Percy Heath adds his own flourishes to the 1954 "Blue Monk," which at 7:36 is the only selection out of three-minute range. But drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach are co-stars--don't ignore Blakey's rhumba sticks on "Bye-Ya" or Roach decorating "Bemsha Swing," one of several tunes Monk rocks like one of his stride-piano idols. Monk signed with Prestige after an unwarranted arrest that cost him his cabaret card prevented him from showing off his mastery of a body of melody as fetching and mind-boggling as Gershwin's or Berlin's. And if not every original is from the top of his canon, the Russ Columbo chestnut "Sweet and Lovely" could almost be "Round Midnight"'s fraternal twin when he makes it his own. A+

Monk [Columbia/Legacy, 2002]
I love Columbia's recent Monk reissues: my beloved twice-purchased Criss Cross, Solo Monk with its organic bonus tracks, It's Monk's Time set up by the staggering stride of "Lulu's Back in Town." I also dig the much-praised Underground, for its full sound and wealth of originals--though I prefer "Boo Boo's Birthday" to "Ugly Beauty" and "Green Chimneys," am glad Teo Macero axed those bass solos, and consider Jon Hendricks's ratchety vocal and witless lyric to "In Walked Bud" a sacrilege. But this is my favorite, because he and his men rehab standards so crookedly (Gershwin, Berlin, p.d. playground chant), and because boon straight man Charlie Rouse is all over it--not least on Monk's "Pannonica," originally the property of Sonny Rollins himself. A

The Best of Thelonious Monk [Riverside, 2004]
Superb beginning to end, duh--but inexcusably lacking both "Little Rootie Tootie" and the Johnny Griffin "In Walked Bud" ("Jackie-ing," "Off Minor"). ***

The Very Best [Blue Note, 2005]
Everything El Supremo did for Blue Note is worth owning and these foundational recordings of his best-known tunes--13 in all, running just under 40 minutes--aren't always as forcefully shaped or incandescently accompanied as in their more practiced Prestige, Riverside, and Columbia incarnations. I miss "Skippy," Sonny Rollins, and Charlie Rouse; hell, I miss Ernie Henry. Nevertheless, there is no simpler or cheaper way to access Monk's compositional genius in its naked glory, and here more than anywhere his playing gives the Sinatra-like sense that he both knows exactly what he wants to do and is always shifting slightly at the last millisecond. A powerful thinker with a wicked sense of humor, he can't resist seeking perfection--or is it playin' with ya? A

Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 [Saga/Sam, 2017]
A pricey French import that targets serious fans like me, so why not you? Recorded down by the riverside in Weehawken because Monk wasn't together or perhaps even interested enough to get to France, this unsynchronized 1959 "soundtrack" for a sexed-up Roger Vadim rip of the 1782 novel of the same name offers no new compositions but several this-time-onlys as it deploys the exceptional rhythm section of bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor and on some tracks a second saxophonist named Barney Wilen to texture Charlie Rouse's breathy imperturbality. Toward the end comes a brief improvisation entitled "Light Blue" that later resurfaced as "Round Lights" and a brief reading of the Charles Tindley hymn "We'll Understand It By and By" by the same pianist who spent two teen years woodshedding with a gospel show. And then there's the bonus disc, which really is for fans only, like the one I know who can't get enough of the 14-minute "Light Blue (making of)," which consists entirely of Taylor trying to get the tune's bluntly off-kilter beat straight. A-

Palo Alto [Impulse, 2020]
No Coltrane-at-Carnegie coup but with plenty more to offer than, for instance, 2017's Les Liaisons Dangereuses "soundtrack," this 37-minute Sunday-afternoon high school gig squeezed into a three-week 1968 San Francisco club run is one of the Great One's more distinct live albums, not least because it showcases his late-life band, which by spurring tenor henchman Charlie Rouse with lithe bassist Larry Gales and deft drummer Ben Riley was also his sprightliest. The sound is so crisp it's hard to believe it was recorded on a janitor's tape machine (a treasured Webcor, I bet), capturing not just how muscular his touch is on "Ruby My Dear" and how scalar his comping is on "Blue Monk" but how enthusiastically he grunts his enjoyment of Gales's bowed solo. Rouse's brisk, angular "Blue Monk" solo doesn't top 'Trane's at Carnegie but cuts his own Paris and Newport efforts. And while Ethel Waters's "Don't Blame Me" has never been my favorite Monk standard, a nostalgic yet discordant minute-plus of Rudy Vallee's "I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams" is an aptly cockeyed way to bid the kids goodbye. A-

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