MONK, Thelonious: Let's Cool One

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'Let's Cool One' Original Recordings 1950-1952

Jazz has usually been a music that has celebratedits great individualists, the innovators who chooseto go their own way and be themselves ratherthan follow musical trends. However even in theliberal atmosphere of jazz, some brilliantmusicians get overlooked or misinterpreted andspend years being neglected. That was the casefor Thelonious Sphere Monk.

Even during the bebop era, a period when jazzwas moving forward quickly, Monk was ahead ofthe crowd and considered by many to be too 'farout' to be taken seriously. His piano playing wasnot in the dominant Bud Powell style and seemedto look forwards and backwards in timesimultaneously while his compositions werethought of as too difficult to play. Monk wouldhave to wait for the jazz world to catch up to him.

Thelonious Monk was born 10 October 1917in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, growing up inNew York City. He began playing piano when hewas six and was initially influenced by both themasterful stride pianist James P. Johnson and theinfluential swing stylist Teddy Wilson. Monk'sfirst professional job was going on the road withan evangelist, accompanying her sermons. Hewas a member of the house band at Minton'sPlayhouse during 1940-43, participating in manyjam sessions that helped lead to the music sooncalled 'bebop'. During this time, Monk pareddown his style drastically, developing fresh newchord voicings, developing an unpredictable andpercussive approach, and using space and silencedramatically. The Cootie Williams Orchestrabecame the first to record a couple of hiscompositions, \Epistrophy" (which becameMonk's theme song) in 1942 and "'RoundMidnight" two years later.

Monk worked for a few months with LuckyMillinder's orchestra in 1942 and made hisrecording debut in 1944 (other than some privaterecordings from Minton's) when he spent aperiod as pianist with tenor-saxophonist ColemanHawkins' quartet. While Hawkins recognizedMonk's talent from the start, as did DizzyGillespie and Charlie Parker, many other so-calledmodern jazz musicians did not understand whatthey were hearing, even claiming that Monk didnot know how to play piano very well.

Thelonious' introverted and sometimesuncommunicativepersonality did not help, and hebecame known as an eccentric.

The 1945-54 period was a difficult one forMonk. While some of his songs, particularly"'Round Midnight," caught on in jazz, he did notget opportunities to play in public that frequently.

Monk worked during a couple of brief stints withthe Dizzy Gillespie big band of the 1940s and hehad occasional gigs with his trio but, by the early1950s, he was spending most of his time athome, practising and writing new songs. It wasnot until 1957, when he spent the summerleading a quartet at New York's Five Spot thatfeatured tenor-saxophonist John Coltrane, thatMonk finally had his breakthrough. Playing in astyle that was unchanged from a decade earlier,he was finally recognized as a musical genius.

The music on this collection is from Monk'sneglected years. The session from 1950 was theonly time that the pianist recorded with eitheraltoist Charlie Parker or drummer Buddy Rich andit also features Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet andfine backup work from bassist Curly Russell. Theancient standard My Melancholy Baby is given atongue-in-cheek treatment. The opening pianointroduction could be by no one but Monk.

Parker's Relaxin' With Lee (a new melody overthe chord changes of "Stompin' At The Savoy")has inventive choruses from Parker and Gillespiealong with drum breaks from Rich but Monk'ssolo takes honours. Despite his brilliant playingon this date, other than two songs backingFrankie Passions, Monk made no appearances inthe recording studios during 1949-50.

Alfred Lion of the Blue Note label knew earlyon that Thelonious Monk was a significant newvoice in jazz and he recorded his first four datesas a leader during 1947-48. Selections 3-12 onthis set are from two slightly later Blue Notesessions. The 23 July 1951 session (his onlyrecordings of that year) has the debut of five ofMonk's songs plus a reworking of the standardWillow Weep For Me. Monk's quintet featuressuch sympathetic players as vibraphonist MiltJackson, bassist Al McKibbon and drummer ArtBlakey, with Sahib Shihab (who would becomebetter known as a baritonist) often in the lead onalto. Musicians who felt that Monk's music wastoo difficult to play were given strong evidenceduring the first two numbers. Four In One is notthe type of song one can perform without a bit ofwork but this version is definitive. Monk alwaysbelieved in keeping the melody close by (in bebopthe theme is often discarded during solos) andone can hear the complex lines of Criss Crosshinted at throughout this performance's solos.

Criss Cross is one of Monk's most advancedpieces, an original with an unpredictable butsomehow logical melody and a very tricky chordsequence. It was never designed to become astandard or be sung but it is a jazz masterpiece.

In contrast, Eronel ('Lenore' spelled backwards)has a joyful theme that cries out for lyrics.

Straight No Chaser, due to being a mediumtempoblues, did become a standard. Notice howMonk's solo is a logical outgrowth of his theme.

From the same date, Ask Me Now (one of thepianist's most memorable ballads) features Monkin a trio while Milt Jackson (who would soon jointhe Modern Jazz Quartet) is showcased onWillow Weep For Me.

Moving ahead a year, of the four songs thatMonk performed during his final Blue Note date(not counting two others not released untildecades later), only Let's Cool One was recordedby the pianist again. Skippy is remarkablycomplex, with the chords changing every twobeats and the melody matching Criss Cross in itsdifficulty. Tenor-saxophonist Lucky Thompsonand trumpeter Kenny Dorham fare well but onlyMonk really masters the composition. The samecan be said for Hornin' In, which also has a spotfor altoist Lou Donaldson and has a mysteriousfeel to the melody and the unusual voicings.

Throughout his career, Monk enjoyed takingvintage tunes and altering them in unexpectedways. Carolina Moon, which was written in1919, is turned into a double-time waltz. Monk'sLet's Cool One is a contrast to most of his othertunes in that it is one of the most singable of allof his compositions.

Completing this collection are eight selectionsincluding six Monk tunes, performed by thepianist in 1952 in trios with bassist Gary Mappand either Art Blakey or Max Roach on drums.

Little Rootie Tootie (with its humorous dissonance),Bye Ya, Monk's Dream, Trinkle Tinkleand the catchy Bemsha Swing would becomepermanent parts of Monk's repertoire whileReflections would slip into obscurity. Sweet AndLovely and These Foolish Things are heard inparticularly unique yet melodic versions thatshow what Monk could do to 1930s standards.

After his long overdue discovery in 1957,Monk became an unlikely celebrity, touring theworld in the 1960s with his quartet andappearing on the cover of Time Magazine in 1964.

But after working with Dizzy Gillespie in a sextetcalled The Giants Of Jazz in 1971-72 and makinga final series of recordings, Monk retired andlittle was heard from him during the decadepreceding his 17 February 1982 death at age 64.

Since his passing, Thelonious Monk has againbeen rediscovered, his compositions extensivelyexplored and his music regarded as the work of ahighly individual genius. He is actually morefamous today than he was during his lifetime andhis music, as evidenced by the recordings on thisreissue, are as timeless as ever.

Scott Yanow

author of 8 jazz books including Jazz On Film, Swing,Bebop, Trumpet Kings and Jazz On Record
Disc: 1
Bemsha Swing
1 My Melancholy Baby
2 Relaxin' With Lee
3 Four In One
4 Criss Cross
5 Eronel
6 Straight No Chaser
7 Ask Me Now
8 Willow Weep For Me
9 Skippy
10 Hornin' In
11 Carolina Moon
12 Let's Cool One
13 Little Rootie Tootie
14 Sweet And Lovely
15 Bye-Ya
16 Monk's Dream
17 Trinkle, Trinkle
18 These Foolish Things
19 Reflections
20 Bemsha Swing
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