Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Thelonious Monk/Sonny Rollins [extended]

  • The Cutting Edge [Milestone, 1974] B
  • Nucleus [Milestone, 1975] A-
  • Don't Stop the Carnival [Milestone, 1978] A-
  • There Will Never Be Another You [ABC/Impulse, 1978] A
  • Sunny Days, Starry Nights [Milestone, 1984] A
  • G-Man [Milestone, 1987] A+
  • Silver City [Milestone, 1996] A+
  • Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk [Rhino/Atlantic, 1999] Choice Cuts
  • A Night at the Village Vanguard [Blue Note, 1999] A-
  • Ken Burns Jazz [Verve, 2000] A+
  • 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] ***
  • Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall [Blue Note, 2005] A
  • The Very Best [Blue Note, 2005] A
  • Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert [Milestone, 2005] B+
  • Thelonious Monk/Sonny Rollins [Prestige, 2006] A
  • Road Shows Vol. 1 [Doxy/Emarcy, 2008] A+
  • Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 [Saga/Sam, 2017] A-
  • Palo Alto [Impulse, 2020] A-

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Sonny Rollins: The Cutting Edge [Milestone, 1974]
Rollins is one of those certified geniuses who didn't pan out for me when I had the time to investigate jazz, and although I hoped for belated paydirt from his first live album in years, more careful examination reveals that the straight melodies do get dull and the improvisations aren't rich enough to invite deep digging, just like all the jazz metallugists warned me. B

Sonny Rollins: Nucleus [Milestone, 1975]
Eat your heart out, Grover Washington (Archie Shepp) (yeah, King Curtis too). This is as rich an r&b saxophone record as I know, combining repetition and invention, melodies recalled and melodies unimaginable, in proportions that define the difference between selling out and reaching out. This man says more with his tone than most musicians do with a full set of chops (which he also has, of course). If you really believe you don't like "jazz," this is as good a place to start as any. A-

Sonny Rollins: Don't Stop the Carnival [Milestone, 1978]
I've always felt that Rollins's Caribbean airs and easy expansiveness were well-suited to his fusionoid recording ideas of recent years, but the only album that has broken through for me is Nucleus. Even on this double-LP it's the relatively mournful standard, "Autumn Nocturne" and the relatively austere Donald Byrd (!) theme, "President Hayes," that tempt me past the dancey magic of the title cut, a tune Rollins has been playing for 15 years. And a good thing, too--the meat of the album is sustaining if not exquisite, jazz food that anyone can digest. A-

Sonny Rollins: There Will Never Be Another You [ABC/Impulse, 1978]
But this much knottier 1965 session is the Rollins I keep going back to. The man is expansive here, too--casually interpolating rapt modal runs into his thoughtful thematic improvisations on the 16-minute title tour de force, for instance--but the context is more angular, with continual commentary by Billy Higgins (who shares the drumming with Mickey Roker) that erases the memory of Tony Williams's work on Don't Stop the Carnival. Also knotty is the question of who owns this music--Rollins has claimed in court that ABC had no right to release it. A

Sonny Rollins: Sunny Days, Starry Nights [Milestone, 1984]
Not owning any Sonny Rollins records is like not owning any Aretha Franklin records--his sheer physical presence is something no aural sensualist should live without. Not that the sound hasn't proved malleable and even protean, but its direct, expressive warmth and raspy power is unmistakable even to noninitiates like me. His most accessible and uncompromised album in more than a decade is soaked in the swinging pan-Caribbean "calypso" that's been his special pleasure since the '50s; despite drummer Tommy Campbell's elaborations it moves the rock and roller in me. A

Sonny Rollins: G-Man [Milestone, 1987]
The live soundtrack to Robert Mugge's Saxophone Colossus is jazz for rock-and-rollers to cut their teeth on. It's exciting, fun, a gas, all that stuff great rock and roll is supposed to be and so rarely is these days. Title track is fifteen minutes of Rollins at a peak--a showman who never shows off, a virtuoso who's never pretentious or (in this situation) even difficult. It's like what some teenager might imagine both "free jazz" and "a honking session" sound like from reading LeRoi Jones or John Sinclair--riffs jumping and giving long past their breaking points, notes held so long it's a wonder Rollins hasn't passed out. Elsewhere are ten-minute workouts on two proven flag-wavers, "Don't Stop the Carnival" and "Tenor Madness" (the latter CD-only although the vinyl runs under thirty-five minutes, my only objection to the package). Everyone else in a quintet accelerated by the amazing Marvin Smith feels the spirit, although their inventions are more strictly harmonic and rhythmic where Rollins's are always sonic as well. Free jazz and honking sessions rarely get this good. I haven't enjoyed a record so much all year. A+

Sonny Rollins: Silver City [Milestone, 1996]
I was all set to call my man Giddins and ask whether this two-CD set could possibly be as unerring as I thought when I learned that most of the choices had been put forward by Gary himself, for the Voice's Rollins issue. So moan all you want about conflict of interest. This is the shit--funny, tortured, profound, romantic, carnivalesque. Surprisingly for a modernist of fabled young alienation, Rollins adds to the easeful, virtuosic majesty of his mature sound an enlightenment that takes the entire vocabulary of the saxophone, from follow-the-notes melody reproduction to squeaks and blats that know no tonal referent, as a sound-palette that is its own reason for being. Hence he may come off too well-adjusted for the what-you-got rebels of rock's supposedly alternative nation. But if you feel about rock and roll the way Rollins does about the saxophone--that it's all one structure of feeling from howl to croon, bubblepop to jungle, Mariah to Polly Jean--you should forget your singing habit and sign on for one hell of a ride. A+

Art Blakey & Thelonious Monk: Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk [Rhino/Atlantic, 1999]
"Blue Monk (Alternate Take)", "Evidence (Alternate Take)" Choice Cuts

Sonny Rollins: A Night at the Village Vanguard [Blue Note, 1999]
This 1957 date is the Rollins virtuoso fanciers fancy: two-plus hours on the Sunday of Sputnik 2, the tenor colossus braving the harmonic void in the closest thing to free jazz a bebop saxophonist essaying Porter, Gershwin, Arlen, and his beloved Hammerstein can rev into. Backed by retro-rocketing Monk bassist Wilbur Ware and a young Elvin Jones testing his launching capacity, Rollins is charged with venturing far out from these tunes without severing the harmonic moorings normally secured by a piano. He does it again and again--but not without a certain cost in ebullience, texture, and fullness of breath. Impressive always, fun in passing, his improvisations are what avant-garde jazz is for. The drum solos are a club convention that let him idle his engines a little. A-

Sonny Rollins: Ken Burns Jazz [Verve, 2000]
Epitomized in 11 flawless 1954-1966 tracks is jazz's greatest living improviser as questing modernist, before he settled into his seigneury at Milestone. Almost every player is a titan trying: Davis and Gillespie and Brown, Hawkins and Stitt, Silver and Flanagan and Bley, Clarke and Roach and Jones. Yet Rollins owns every track. On straight bebop and postmodernism crossing the bridge, "Body and Soul" and "St. Thomas" and "I'm an Old Cowhand," his fluid, muscular, sardonically confident sound justifies his omnivorous appetites and vitalizes his twistiest abstractions. I'm not literate enough to explain what "Alfie's Theme Differently" has to do with "Alfie." But I bet Burt Bacharach thought about it for a good long time. A+

Thelonious Monk: 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: 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+

Thelonious Monk: 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

Thelonious Monk: 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"). ***

Thelonious Monk Quartet: Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall [Blue Note, 2005]
Funny ha ha and funny peculiar, Monk's startling block chords, disdain for the romantic arpeggio, and flat-out genius have long rendered him rock's favorite jazz pianist, and the spiritual ambition of Coltrane's endless sheets of sound left a deeper impression on hippiedom and its musical aftermaths than any other jazz. Both musicians were at some kind of peak the night of this miraculously unearthed 1957 performance, and though Coltrane was playing Monk, not Coltrane, his longing to bust out just adds dynamic tension. It's humbling to realize that if someone with a decent tape machine had captured another 50 minutes of this band's music . . . well, it would have been looser, the multi-artist concert format of this gig does provide formal discipline. But discard the bass and drum solos and it could have been almost as remarkable, ad infinitum to a never-to-be-determined point of satiety. A

Thelonious Monk: 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

Sonny Rollins: Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert [Milestone, 2005]
I counted: pianist Stephen Scott and trombonist Clifton Anderson solo for 15-plus minutes apiece on this 72-minute album, which documents a 9/15/01 Boston concert down to the introductory remarks and standing ovations. Understandably, the material includes three meditative standards, and unsurprisingly, Rollins meditates up a storm at several speeds. The historical moment only intensifies his religious feelings about music; he's humble and masterful, questioning and joyous, swinging and polyrhythmic. Scott fits in, running changes with a satisfying physicality. But the heightened circumstances make clear that Anderson's main job in this band is to give the boss breathing room. And under the circumstances, there's too much of it. B+

Thelonious Monk/Sonny Rollins [Prestige, 2006]
Rollins lays out on two trio numbers and tackles only one Monk tune on this five-track, 34-minute 1954 product. But that performance belongs on both guys' life list: the little-recorded closer "Friday the 13th," an indelible four-note motif Monk made up in the studio that's stated breathily by Rollins and then tossed around for 10 minutes by the principals, MJQ bassist Percy Heath, left-field drummer Willie Jones, and--adding unexpected and melodic textural chutzpah--Julius Watkins on French horn. Supported by original bebopper Tommy Potter and hard-bop stalwart Art Taylor, the Fields-Kern and Caesar-Youmans standards that open ain't Swiss cheese either. A

Sonny Rollins: Road Shows Vol. 1 [Doxy/Emarcy, 2008]
As definitive as the Silver City comp in a different way, this decades-spanning live album, which looked like the first of an endless series of exhumations, remains the most recent release from the still-active 80-year-old, although a second volume is expected in the fall. It's living proof of the truism that his Fantasy studio output didn't do justice to what happened in concert enchanted evening after enchanted evening, and demonstrates in addition that just like Louis Armstrong, Rollins was as invaluable in his audience-pleasing mature period as in his questing youth. Beyond the top-drawer drummers--Al Foster, Roy Haynes, Steve Jordan--are such serviceable sidemen as bassist Bob Cranshaw and electric (!) piano player Mark Soskin. But because the concept foregrounds melody and straight-ahead swing, this may even be a plus, because it leaves the focus on the star of the show. His tenor sound grown huge and warm without a hint of corn syrup, Rollins is more inventive and risk-prone than the older Armstrong. But since his audience expects nothing less, his astonishing cadenzas and unaccompanied improvs are the most generous kind of high shtick. Seven tracks, the shortest 7:50 and the longest 12:26, make you feel that he could do this forever. He can't, of course. But that's where he wants to leave you. A+

Thelonious Monk: 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-

Thelonious Monk: 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-