UNTIL THERE IS THAT GREAT label-spanning anthology presenting the singular genius/joy that was/is the career of pianist & composer Thelonious Monk, the world (such as it is) will have to settle for collections such as this, concentrating on TM's label affiliations. Whilst Monk's "other" periods -- chiefly Blue Note & Columbia -- had/has numerous & sundry high points, it's his tenure with the then-indie Riverside label that was instrumental (no pun intended) is his transformation from a cult-figure-in-jazz to full-fledged Icon-hood. Surely you recall when then-Pres.-elect Bill Clinton, upon mentioning that he "dug" Thelonious Monk, was asked by MTV "journalist" Tabitha Sorensen, "Who is the loneliest monk?" In the late rock publication Creem
circa 1976-7, one music journalist opined, "I don't think John Lennon's piano on "Mother" would exist without Monk." And in the early 1960s, Monk was, along with Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington, one of the most famous and popular jazz artists in the world.
But what does all that have to do with the price of rosary beads in Quebec? Not a damn thing, not when the MUSIC herein is this good/great. Of course, packages like this aren't for The Converted, The Faithful, but for those who've yet to get hip to the kind of trip the Monk was layin' down in the mid-to-late 50s. Monk was, first and foremost a "minimalist" -- not in the Phillip Glass/Steve Reich sense (though I would not be at all surprised if they too were influenced by Monk -- Reich, after all, is a big Kenny Clarke fan), but in the sense of using the fewest notes for maximum effect -- and an "avant-gardist" in the way he employed space (sometimes when a sax-fellow was soloing, Monk might stop playing entirely) and angularity (his tunes are melodic but in an almost geometric manner, never quite going where you think they ought. He was also a humorist (there are completely unfounded & unclaimed rumors & half-a**ed notions that Monk was the long-lost Marx Brother "Thelonio") who absorbed the sounds and tones of the blues and gospel music, seemingly forgoing European classical entirely (except maybe Erik Satie, the classical Monk of his day?) -- in the late 50s, jazz was starting to become A Serious Art Form, and while it always WAS a great art form, Attitude started to creep in. We're SERIOUS, darn it -- we play dark, pensive, moody, sardonic, surly, etc., whilst much of Monk's music, while never frivolous, was and is FUN. Intelligent and oft-poignant fun, I'll grant you, but it's easy -- hell, obvious, even -- to imagine the musicians having smiles on their faces while playing. Though T. Monk has his acolytes -- the great Andrew Hill, for instance -- No One quite sounds like him, and this platter is PACKED with Monk-composed classics, played by ensembles including John Coltrane, Gerry Mulligan, Coleman Hawkins, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, and Billy Higgins. While his Blue Note recordings have a darker crackle to them and the Columbia stuff feature a relaxed assurance that only comes from a steady working band, there is simple NO BETTER PLACE to expose one's self to the majesty of Thelonious Sphere Monk. So there.