Thelonious Monk Plays Just For You
So off to Jamaica (Queens) went I for a jar of Perma-Strate hair straightener, which you could not buy in my neighborhood you can be sure, and a jazz album. The record store was located close to the bus terminal so after buying the Perma-Strate from a giggling black (then negro) store clerk, I hit the record store's jazz section.
I'll be honest with you: I know more about straightening my hair at the time than I did about jazz. Why did I straighten my hair? This was before having a "Jewfro" was fashionable and I hated my curly hair.
I bought the Monk album because I thought his name was cool and the back cover profile shot of the hat wearing, goateed guy, cigarette dangling from his mouth epitomized in my mind "jazz."
According to the song listing on the back, the album began with a song called "Hackensack" (where I ended up living for a few years) and finished with"Crepescule With Nellie." Whatever a "Crepescule" was, I wanted in! And with covers of "Tea For Two" and "Don't Blame Me", which for some reason I knew, meant I wouldn't be totally lost, whatever this music was like.
I didn't know anything about Monk—that by the time the forty seven year old pianist signed to Columbia he had already recorded for Blue Note, Prestige and Riverside (labels I'd never heard of, but Columbia was familiar and safe, which may in part have accounted for why I picked Criss-Cross in the first place). I didn't know about his losing his cabaret license (needed back then to play clubs that served alcohol) in 1951 when narcotics were found in Bud Powell's car and he refused to rat on his friend. I didn't know anything about Monk.
I didn't know that he went to Europe in 1954 where he was introduced to Rothschild family member Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who became his long time friend and supporter and who wrote the ultra supportive liner notes (as Nica De Koenigswarter) that I read on the back of Criss-Cross wondering who was this oddly named person? I didn't know that five years earlier Monk had been beaten badly by Delaware police after a search of the Baroness's car produced "narcotics" (probably marijuana) and that Monk and de Koenigswarter were let off by a judge supposedly because of the beating (but one wonders if family members may have exerted some influence).
But mostly I didn't know that I was supposed to find Monk's music too difficult to listen to and understand because had I known that, I might not have bought the album. Fortunately I was clueless.
I took the record home and put it on the family's Garrard Type A and became an instant Thelonious Monk fan. I'd done good! I picked a winner! This was jazz that rocked! Before I got to Monk, I fell first for Frankie Dunlop's explosive drumming followed by Charlie Rouse's tenor blasts. Then I got to Monk. He seemed to be hitting the wrong notes at the wrong time, jerking in and out of meter. It sounded sour but so sweet!
Criss-Cross was more like what I remember rock being in the 50s than rock was in the early '60s. A year later, the Beatles had invaded and Monk was on the cover of Time magazine. I'd "discovered" him a year earlier. What a "trendsetter" the teenaged mind said to itself.
Monk's studio recording career faded soon thereafter as did my interest in jazz (but not for long). The Beatles saw to that. Monk's final recording date as a band leader was in England in 1971 for Alan Bates's (not the "Zorba the Greek" actor) Black Lion label, while on the "Giants of Jazz" tour with Dizzy Gillespie, Kai Winding, Sonny Stitt, Al McKibbon and Art Blakey.
Jazz critic Alun Morgan suggested a Monk solo date and out of that came this ten tune set, some of which I believe was issued in America on the American Black Lion label distributed by Audio Fidelity. By then that label had become a ghost of its early audiophile adventurous self and the mastering and pressing quality were poor.
The UK label Pure Pleasure reissued a superb trio recording from these dates featuring Al McKibbon on bass and Art Blakey on drums (Black Lion/Pure Pleasure/ BLPP 30119) cut by Ray Staff at Air Mastering and pressed at Pallas that's definitely worth owning and which is reviewed elsewhere on this site.
Here though, we get solo Monk, pure unadulterated Monk. Just Monk sitting down at the Chappell Studios piano on November 15th 1971, superbly engineered by John Timperly, who was also responsible for the vibrant sound on the first Cream album Fresh Cream. Chappell is where The Beatles recorded "Your Mother Should Know" by the way.
For Monk fans used to the quartet or orchestral versions of "Crepuscule With Nellie" (Monk's wife), "Jackieing" and "Little Rootie Tootie" these solo deconstructed versions lay bare everything fans love about Monk: his playfulness, his incredible daring, and his improvisational rhythmic and accentual genius. His sense of leaving just the right amount of space between notes has never been better displayed than on these solo tracks.
Timperly did not go for "a piano in a space" as an audiophile mentality might desire. Instead he's miked the piano from a moderately close distance almost from Monk's perspective, which allows you to clearly hear separately, Monk's left hand stride-like style and the off kilter upper keyboard work produced by his always unpredictable right hand.
The piano sound is absolutely ideal tonally, texturally and especially dynamically. The transient attack is ultra-clean, the sustain generous and the decay falls away naturally. When Monk accentuates a note or series of notes by ramping up the volume, it gets loud! In short, it sounds like a piano. It sounds like Monk has sat down to play a recital just for you!
This set mastered from the original tapes by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering, using jazz fanatic Grundman's EQ settings and pressed at Pallas in Diepolz, Germany comes as either a single 33 1/3 LP ($29.99) or as a three LP deluxe set, with the 33 1/3 LP plus a double 45rpm edition packaged in a black gatefold jacket with a die cut front cover of the Black Lion logo. Only 500 numbered copies of the 3 LP set were pressed.
This set was cut with little or no dynamic compression and if you hear crackling breakup, rest assured it's your system not the record! To avoid break-up you might have to track the 33 1/3 version at the top end of your cartridges recommended tracking force. The 45rpm edition is easier to track and sounds better as 45rpm LPs almost always do. I'd spend the extra $20 for the 3 LP version, sure to become a collector's item, but if you get the single LP version, you'll still be glad you did.
The sound here is so transparent, the pressing quality so superb, the vinyl so quiet, if you set the level just so, I think you'll agree with me that the title of this review is not hyperbole: turn out the lights and Monk has been brought back to life to play just for you!