Jazz fans know him by many names. The genius of modern music. The high priest of bop. John Coltrane once called him 'one of the true greats of all time.' Regardless of how you refer to him, Thelonious Sphere Monk was one of the most influential jazz pianists of the modern era. As a composer, only Duke Ellington and arguably Charles Mingus are equals. Challenging, provocative, and disturbing were just a few of the words used to describe his music. Unfortunately for Monk, these descriptions worked against him. It wasn't until years later that people discovered that this unique style of music could also be rewarding and enjoyable.

Monk first arrived on the scene around 1934, and helped change the course of jazz. By the early 40's, he was playing Harlem clubs like Minton's, and Monroe's Uptown House, with people like Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. The thing that set him apart from the rest, however, was his flat-handed style of playing. Many thought it sounded primitive, or wrong. Monk's response to that sentiment was that an artist needed to play what he heard. The public would just have to catch up to him. In the mid 40's he led groups under his own name, worked with Coleman Hawkins, and again with Dizzy Gillespie; but didn't work regularly until the mid 50's after he signed with Riverside.

Analogue Productions (referred to as AP from this point on for brevity), an audiophile company based in Salinas, KS, recently released an extraordinary new Monk box set entitled The Riverside Tenor Sessions. The box contains seven albums--Brilliant Corners, Monk's Music, Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, Thelonious in Action, Misterioso, 5 by Monk by 5, and At the Blackhawk--all on gold CDs (or 180-gram LPs). These albums provide a sampling of the era's biggest tenor sax players--Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Griffin, Charlie Rouse and Harold Land. I'll go over the individual albums, and then tell you about the packaging.

Brilliant Corners was the first album where Monk was really free to do what he wanted. Critics had accused Riverside of trying to commercialize Monk's previous albums to gain acceptance, so this was their response. The music was as challenging as anything he had done in the past, but now the public seemed to be ready for what he was doing. Many consider this the album to be a masterpiece, and rightly so. Max Roach's drumming on the title track sounds great--tight, and full of impact. "Pannonica" made its debut on this album, and features Monk on both piano and celesta at the same time. The tender "I Surrender, Dear" was recorded as a spur of the moment piano solo, when studio time was limited and another song was needed for the album. On the AP CD, it sounds like you're right there with him. "Bemsha Swing" is a bit sloppier than usual here, but the song makes an effective finale to the album. Roach's tympani playing stands outs much more than on the reissues.

The sound quality on Monk's Music is breathtaking, especially for a monaural recording. "Well You Needn't" is a perfect example. When I compared the track on the gold CD to the OJC (Original Jazz Classics) CD, this difference was stunning. It was like comparing a $10,000 sound system to an AM radio. The entire septet is warm, robust and exciting. Check out Art Blakey's drum solo on "Epistrophy." You can easily pick out the different tunings of each drum when you listen to the AP CD; it's not just your 'basic' drum sound anymore. Unfortunately, when they de-hissed the OJC disc, they eliminated most of Blakey's brushwork on "Ruby My Dear" as well. On AP's disc, you can hear the brushes clearly, and the bass response on the track is deep and full. You won't believe your ears when you compare this disc to the previous versions. It's that much better.

For six short months in 1957, the definitive Monk quartet (Monk, Shadow Wilson on drums, Wilbur Ware on bass, and John Coltrane on tenor) appeared on stage at The Five Spot, a small club on New York's east side. By this time, crowds were coming out in droves to hear him play; often being turned away at the doors. Due to contract disputes at the time, Riverside was unable to release any recordings of this legendary group. When things were settled four years later, they issued the only three studio tracks that the group recorded as part of this album. Trane's solo on "Ruby My Dear" is silky smooth, and his work on "Nutty" is some of his best. Monk and Ware both turn in excellent solos on "Trinkle Tinkle," one of the more difficult songs on the record. The other three tracks are outtakes from previous sessions.

During '57 and '58, Monk was spending the majority of his working time on stage at The Five Spot. It was here that he recorded two of his finest albums, Thelonious in Action, and Misterioso; and the quartet is in blistering form. When Coltrane left the group to rejoin Miles Davis' band, Monk brought in former colleague Johnny Griffin. His smooth, fluid solos on "Coming on the Hudson" and "Evidence" are spectacular. Thelonious in Action is the first CD in the box that doesn't measure up sonically to its OJC counterpart--but it only pales in places. The OJC version has more low end on all the tracks and a higher output level, although it tends to be a bit muddy at times. AP's disc is more open, and noticeably brighter. Roy Haynes' drum solo on "Evidence" is tight and full of power on the AP disc, as opposed to the muddy sound on the OJC disc. The dynamic range is superb. My personal suggestion on this one: boost the bass slightly, close your eyes, and you'll swear you're back at The Five Spot.

Misterioso continues where Thelonious in Action left off, with six more tracks from the same night's performance. In terms of sound quality, AP's version is consistent with Thelonious in Action (as it should be). OJC's version still has a higher output level, but this time, there is added reverb. The record starts off with "Nutty" (one of my favorites). Overall, I like this version better than the one with Coltrane. Griffin seems to 'fit in' better with what Monk was doing at the time. His unaccompanied solo on "Blues Five Spot" is superb, and like the bass solo on "In Walked Bud," has much more presence on the AP version. The audience is more noticeable on the OJC disc. OJC's reverb pays off on "Just a Gigolo," giving it a slightly warmer sound. The title track is considerably better on the AP disc. Monk's solo on this classic blues piece sounds clear and natural. It's like he's in the same room with you.

Recorded during the first week in June 1959, 5 by Monk by 5 is another of the many highlights of Monk's career. The group had undergone a complete change since the last album. Johnny Griffin had been replaced by Charlie Rouse (who would remain with Monk throughout the 60's), and Sam Jones and Art Taylor filled in on bass and drums respectively. Thad Jones rounded out the group on cornet. His solo on "Jackie-ing" is one of the highlights on the disc. The song is slightly warmer on the OJC disc, but AP's pressing is brighter and more spacious. Rouse's tenor solo on "Straight No Chaser" sounds fabulous. The separation on the track is noticeably better than on the OJC disc as well. The disc winds down with "Ask Me Now," and features a beautiful solo from Monk.

This brings us to the last CD in the box, At The Blackhawk; Monk's 12th album for Riverside. The original idea for the record was to have Monk collaborate with drummer Shelly Manne. Unfortunately, the Monk/Manne pairing didn't work out, so they brought in Billy Higgins to fill the void. This was the first time Monk had recorded with two tenors and a trumpet. It was also the first live Monk album without a bass or drum solo. The disc gets started with a couple of obscure tunes, "Let's Call This" and "Four in One." The latter features some blindingly fast flourishes from Monk on the intro. His solo on the song is one of his best. "Worry Later" made its debut during this set. Like "Let's Call This," this is another of Monk's no-title titles. At The Blackhawk also includes an extended version of the definitive Monk ballad, "'Round Midnight." As with the rest of the discs in this box, the sound quality is superb.

The only negative thing I can find to say about this collection is that they didn't include the bonus tracks that are found on the OJC discs, opting instead to present the albums in their original form. As you would expect in this type of a collection, the booklet is top notch--informative and chock full of photos. Bob Blumenthal's informative essay takes a look at each album in depth; giving both a fan's perspective as well as that of a jazz historian. In addition, the box also includes full sized reproductions of the album covers.

The Riverside Tenor Sessions is a beautifully packaged box set; limited to 2,500 copies each on CD and vinyl. Although it is far from inexpensive, this collection is sure to please the serious Monk fan. The sound quality throughout the box is superior (or in the case of Monk's Music, vastly superior) to the other discs out there. These seven albums are among the best in jazz, and they have never sounded better.

© 1998 Steve Marshall

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