Well, you need it
A new CD set reveals how Monk taught Coltrane to be himself
In 1957, John Coltrane cut his first record as a bandleader, got canned by Miles Davis and got cold-turkey clean, but by most accounts the biggest thing to happen to him that year was Thelonious Monk. Certainly, the piano shaman had found in the budding tenor legend an apt and eager pupil. Were it not for Monk’s tutelage, concentrated into a few months’ worth of regular gigs at New York’s Five Spot Café and culminating in a late-November date at Carnegie Hall, Coltrane might not have become the name you’re now embarrassed to drop because it’s too obvious.
Last year, a recording of that Carnegie Hall show came out of nowhere—or, to be fair, out of the Library of Congress—and Blue Note Records released Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall to great, deserved fanfare. Suddenly, the aficionados had a new treasure, and the uninitiated had an unqualified safe bet—plus proof that, by most accounts, the biggest thing to happen to jazz in 2005 was 1957.
Now a new two-disc set presents everything Monk and Trane did together in the studio, including a couple of previously unreleased takes. Out on June 27, Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane: The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings is certifiably not a repeat of last year’s landmark release, nor can it avoid standing in that album’s long shadow. But that’s exactly why it’s useful.
It’s not that the Riverside Recordings lack at Carnegie Hall’s glory, but that collectively they’re one of that glory’s rudiments, at once an essential preparation for the quartet’s ultimate concert and a retrospective, fan-friendly annotation thereof. Where the concert exuded surety, the studio sessions abound with uncertainty. They offer not the continuous flow of a single evening’s practiced sets, but instead the practice itself—all the takes and retakes, the requisite starts and stops of players familiarizing themselves with each other and the material. The lineup—trumpeter Ray Copeland, alto-saxophonist Gigi Gryce, bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Shadow Wilson, plus, briefly, special guests Coleman Hawkins on tenor and Art Blakey on drums—performs ably. But the revelations come from an exchange between the headliners, from Coltrane finding his feet among Monk’s tectonic tunes.
Because before there could be Coltrane the undaunted, there had to be Monk the uncommon, a composer both inscrutable and familiar, a primitivist and a futurist, making reduction seem like elaboration. The joy of hearing these sides all together will take a little work because work is what they’re about: namely, cluing in to Monk’s deep-digging, weirdly hooky melodies; his harmonic advances and retreats; his rocking, irresistible ease and utter Coltrane-appropriateness.
Listen, for instance, to the take of “Well, You Needn’t” in which, just after the piano solo, occur a couple of shouts of “Coltrane!” Then the tenor enters, late and hesitant, and eventually rights itself into a bracing solo. Was Monk shouting a reprimand or an encouragement? Riverside Records co-founder Orrin Keepnews, who originally produced the sessions and wrote the liner notes for this release, makes a claim on the truth of this matter from direct experience, but he doesn’t entirely dispel the mystery or the thrill. Besides, we’ve gotten so used to the rarity of hesitation from Coltrane that hearing it is a way of really hearing him again.
Tellingly, this two-titans-together set includes a track (Gryce’s “Blues for Tomorrow”) lacking Monk entirely and a take of “Ruby, My Dear” lacking Coltrane. But these absences aren’t liabilities; they’re value added. The former, on disc one, is a placeholder from when the pianist passed out on his keyboard, and the latter, which gave tenor duties over to Hawkins, directly precedes Coltrane’s version of the same tune on disc two. It’s moot contrasting the two interpretations with heaps of adjectives; suffice to say their pairing illuminates Monk’s music better than any written explanation could.
It also shows that after half a century, we can still appreciate Monk’s music partly because we can still relate to Coltrane’s experience of figuring it out.