Imagine rummaging through your junk drawer and finding high-def video footage of the actual Sermon on the Mount from back in the day complete with fluffed lines and coughing from within the congregation; it would be quite a thing. Well folks, this is even better than that! Discovered hiding in the vaults of the Library of Congress in 2005 by lab technician Larry Appelbaum while transferring the library’s known catalogue to digital format, then spiffed up for release by Blue Note’s renowned reissue specialist Michael Cuscuna (the Indiana Jones of their archives) and Thelonious Monk’s son, T.S. Monk, this album documents a significant intersection of jazz history hitherto relegated to myth status.
Thelonious Monk had toiled in relative obscurity for decades, known and admired only by aficionados of the New York jazz scene. His tuneful compositions were full of rhythmic and harmonic complexity and unexpected angles (considered by some as off-beat and impenetrable), while his piano playing was often derided as being unrefined, even dissonant. Others, however, considered him a genius who had overcome his share of hardships to assume his rightful place as the High Priest of Bebop. On July 4th, 1957 at the age of thirty-nine Monk began a residency at the Five Spot Café, a newly opened jazz-club in the Bowery neighbourhood of New York City, patronised by New York’s cultural avant-garde, including artists Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Larry Rivers, and the “Beat Generation” writers Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Allan Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka (who at that stage still went by the name of LeRoi Jones). Playing four sets a night, six nights a week, this was his first long term engagement and his regular weekly earnings of $225 were unprecedented in his career.
Monk hired John Coltrane as saxophonist for his quintet. Recently fired from the Miles Davis band for his unreliability due to a heroin dependence, John Coltrane was at the crossroads. His star was on the rise but Sonny Rollins was the talk of the town. Coltrane had yet to focus his abilities into a distinctive voice liberated from the limits of the conventional structures that Miles was using at the time. Monk’s very unconventional structures quickly leveraged John Coltrane’s playing into a freer place, especially when Monk would get up from his piano and leave the bandstand while Coltrane soloed to the accompaniment of bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Shadow Wilson.
“…with Monk, I had enormous freedom: sometimes Monk went to the bar to get a drink and left us alone, Wilbur Ware, Shadow Wilson, and me, on the stage of the Five Spot. And we improvised without any constraints for a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes, exploring our instruments like madmen…”
They caused a sensation among the jazz cognoscenti and quickly became the hottest ticket in town, becoming a six-month gig and establishing both Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane as jazz legends. Eighteen weeks after their debut at the Five Spot, during which time Coltrane was able to beat his heroin addiction, the Thelonious Monk Quintet was invited to appear at a fundraising event for the Morningside Community Centre at Carnegie Hall on November 29 headlined by Ray Charles and featuring Billie Holliday, Zoot Sims, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker and Sonny Rollins and recorded for broadcast by the Voice of America. These are the tapes unearthed nearly fifty years later by Larry Appelbaum.
There is only one other live recording of this line-up, captured on a portable tape recorder at the Five Spot, which does not compare to the Carnegie Hall tapes in terms of sound quality. It is actually one of Monk’s best sounding live recordings of his career, and the performances of the pieces here are of such high quality that they are all near definitive. The quintet are functioning as a unit due to the many hours clocked up on the Five Spot stage, Monk in particular seems to be really enjoying himself here. His punctuated, stuttering improvisations on the unique ‘Evidence’ make use of the full acoustics in the concert hall, but it is when he embraces the fulsome chords of the slower numbers like ‘Monk’s Blues’ and ‘Crepuscule With Nellie’ that he really responds to the superior Steinway provided, with rich, idiosyncratic filigree runs across the length of the keyboard. The eccentricities in his playing provide a secondary contextual framework within the compositions where even the subtlest flourishes are perfectly placed.
The trajectory of John Coltrane can be traced through his recordings prior to this; tracks from ‘Round About Midnight (1957) with Miles Davis were recorded around a year before and Coltrane’s sole Blue Note album Blue Train (1957) was cut just a couple of months earlier. The differences in performance between just those two are stark, but on the Carnegie Hall album his authority and new-found levels of virtuoso ability are off the charts. Playing well within the disciplined construction of Monk’s imaginative but highly logical tunes he finds his style and takes complete ownership of his place within the music and of his total command of the saxophone. His solos on ‘Epistrophy’ and the relatively straight ahead ‘Nutty’ are full of fire and daring, on ‘Bye-Ya’ he makes like a hummingbird darting from flower to flower and the sound from his horn on the second half of ‘Sweet and Lovely’ is a force of nature. He was still to harness the full greatness of his talent, as achieved on Giant Steps (1960) and beyond, coming to full fruition on A Love Supreme (1964). It is thanks to this album that we are able to further chart his development from stumbling apprentice to unparalleled master. And his playing is the missing element from Monk’s later classic live LPs Misterioso and Thelonious In Action (both 1958) and At The Blackhawk (1960). The fortuitous pairing of these giants of American music has been raised from mythological obscurity with this essential release.