Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk Quartet
Complete catalogs trump career overviews
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., Dec. 14, 2012
Duke EllingtonThe Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection, 1951-1958 (Sony Music)
Charles MingusThe Complete Columbia & RCA Albums Collection (Sony Music)
The Thelonious Monk QuartetThe Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection (Sony Music)
By the time Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk landed with Columbia Records in the Fifties and Sixties, each had already established himself as an undisputed jazz pillar. Nonetheless, these albums yielded some of their most important work. The nine LPs on nine CDs in the Ellington set find the pianist and big band maestro taking full advantage of the new age in technology when 15-minute album sides replaced three-minute 78rpm discs. Ellington revels in the new freedom by revisiting his back catalog and really spreading his wings. Prime example comes on 1951's Masterpieces by Ellington, where chestnuts "Mood Indigo," "Sophisticated Lady," and "Solitude" are reborn in strikingly extended form. Likewise, Ellington Uptown, which was issued thrice with different content each time, now includes it all: the definitive take on Ellington theme "Take the 'A' Train," with outstanding vocalist Betty Roche, plus the near 14-minute "Harlem Suite," "The Controversial Suite," and "The Liberian Suite." Also notable in this compact box of LP minis is the deliciously Afro-Caribbean A Drum Is a Woman, Shakespeare-channeling Ellington and Billy Strayhorn collaboration Such Sweet Thunder, a stunning remake of Black, Brown & Beige with the incomparable Mahalia Jackson, and an obscure gem from 1958, The Cosmic Scene, featuring a stripped down nonet of orchestra members that swings joyously. Charles Mingus took Ellington's compositional visions and advanced them a giant step forward. This seven-title, 10-CD box contains the bassist/composer's only disc for RCA, the rhythmically-charged Tijuana Moods from 1957, and concludes with the posthumous, 1989 performance of his two-hour-plus masterwork, Epitaph. In between those bookends are stellar albums from two different eras. Mingus Ah Um, Mingus Dynasty, and an album of alternate takes resulted from his fertile 1959-60 period, which produced the beloved compositions "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," "Fables of Faubus," and "Better Git It In Your Soul." Much of this music, particularly the arrangements, remains heavily indebted to Ellington, suffused with blues, gospel, and the soulful blowing of Texan saxist Booker Ervin. Jumping ahead to the early Seventies, Let My Children Hear Music and Charles Mingus & Friends In Concert are ambitious, orchestrated, large ensemble pieces. The former reflects Mingus' moody classical influences, while the latter allows his all-stars to swing passionately. The Thelonious Monk Quartet's six studio LPs for Columbia, 1962-68, can be largely divided into three categories: Monkish stride piano interpretations of standards like "Body and Soul," "Tea for Two," and "April in Paris"; sterling remakes of his older compositions, including "Epistrophy," "Bye-Ya," and "Pannonica"; and new tunes that stand tall in his oeuvre: "Bright Mississippi," "Green Chimneys," and "Boo Boo's Birthday." Not enough can ever be said about saxophonist Charlie Rouse, whose magnificent playing throughout is all too often underappreciated because of Monk's towering presence. Of the six albums, Underground spins the most venerated, in part for its outrageous cover and the box set's only vocal, a rousing scat excursion by Jon Hendricks on "In Walked Bud." Monk's Columbia output also equals the hippest of the lot.