The Complete Prestige Recordings (Prestige)
Reviewed by Harvey Pekar, Fri., Dec. 8, 2000
The Complete Prestige Recordings (Prestige)The music of pianist/composer Thelonious Monk can be viewed in several ways. He's often and correctly identified as one of the founders of bebop; Monk's far-ranging influence marks the work of Bud Powell and other boppers, while a number of his compositions ("'Round Midnight" and "52nd Street Theme," for instance) have become part of bop's standard repertoire. However, Monk can also be thought of as a one-man school of music, whose influence was even stronger in the post-bop period of the Fifties and Sixties. Pianists Cecil Taylor, Mal Waldron, Herbie Nichols, Randy Weston, and Andrew Hill displayed a Monk influence then, as did sax men John Coltrane and Steve Lacy. Monk created an entire system of music. This is most obvious in the area of harmony; he popularized the use of the whole-tone scale in jazz, and his uses of dissonance and odd intervals was unsettling to many. He was an economical, very percussive player who emphasized his uniqueness. During the Forties, when swing was the be-all, end-all for many jazz musicians and fans, it was considerably lower on Monk's list of priorities. His music was rhythmically fresh and alive, which is the main thing, but didn't swing excessively due partly to his use of dotted-eighth/sixteenth-note figures. It didn't flow along smoothly, it jounced like an old wagon over a field of rocks; his work was full of rhythmic irregularities and quite unpredictable. In a sense, Monk was continuing and extending the efforts of Earl Hines. Although Hines' playing had a more virtuosic quality, it was jarring, dissonant, and angular. Duke Ellington employed dissonance, and once in a while, when Monk's playing got lush, it was reminiscent of the maestro's. The initial four tracks on this 3-CD set were cut in 1944, when Monk was a sideman with Coleman Hawkins. His style is in transition, but his solos are full of humor and surprises. Hawkins plays wonderfully, displaying his big, rich tone and a bottomless well of ideas. On the tracks where he's a leader, Monk is heard in trio, quartet with tenor sax great Sonny Rollins, and quintet with Rollins and French hornist Julius Watkins or tenor man Frank Foster and trumpeter Ray Copeland. The third CD contains one of the great recorded jam sessions, with Monk, Miles Davis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Kenny Clarke. The material here has great significance and contains some of Monk's best and most often heard compositions: "Blue Monk," "Bemsha Swing," "Bye-Ya," "Monk's Dream," and "Think of One." Notice how Monk can transform a standard into practically his own composition, as he does here on "These Foolish Things." The horn men are excellent. Rollins is sometimes pensive, but imaginative, while Foster turns in sinewy solos. The underrated Watkins contributes melodic, nicely structured spots. Davis is in marvelous form; check out his majestic work on "The Man I Love," which is reminiscent of one of his early influences, Freddy Webster. Jackson is his usual unruffled self; not even Monk's comping can shake his composure. Monk's solos are brilliant; check out his efforts on both takes of "Bag's Groove" -- they're startling even by his nearly insurmountable standards.