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When Thelonius Monk was in London in 1971, few people could have guessed how close he was to the end of his performing career. However, as the film Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser (directed by Charlotte Zwerin) makes clear, he was just not available for most of the last decade before his death on February 17th, 1982. He had fallen into a profound depression that was worlds away from his earlier eccentric but self-contained and self-confident approach to must and life. A year before the London session (destined to be his last) he had been threatened with eviction from his New York apartment, but the main problems were inevitably tied up with his acceptance or otherwise as a musician, composer and bandleader.
His association with CBS Records, whose producer Teo Macero had worked with him sympathetically during much of the 1960s, had ended in mutual incomprehension. Doubtless under pressure from marketing and accountancy personnel, Macero had teamed Monk with arranger/conductor Oliver Nelson, whose West Coast-based studio-band had destroyed the subtlety of Monk's music; and, in the absence of any new material from Thelonius himself, Macero had composed two facile Monk pastiches for the album. The next suggestion from CBS (whether via Macero is not clear) was that he record a selection of Beatles songs, a suggestion not taken up by Monk.
Paul Jeffrey, his last regular saxophone player, reported also that Monk at this period often had rhythm-section players not of his own choice; certainly this would explain the inadequate performers who came to Europe with him in 1969. Talking to Michael Cuscuna of Mosaic Records, Jeffrey said "Guys would come into his band and just want to blow instead of learn his music as he intended it." This ought to have been less true of The Giants Of Jazz, organised in 1971 around a rhythm-section of Monk, Al McKibbon and Art Blakey. And yet Blakey, also in conversation with Cuscuna, pointed the finger not only at the tour promoters but also at the group's front-line (including former Monk employer Dizzy Gillespie) when he claimed "The way he was treated on that Giants Of Jazz tour was a disgrace. His music wasn't played properly."
We should be grateful, though, that this all-star situation effected the musical reunion of Monk with his most sympathetic accompanist ever, namely Blakey, and that the tour schedule afforded them a spare day in London in which to record together again. Their previous collaborations included the historic first Monk sessions for Blue Note, trio sessions for Prestige and Riverside, and the latter label's septet date ("Monk's Music") which was by then 14 years in the past. Despite Blakey's comments on the circumstances of the 1971 tour, Monk was certainly ready and willing to show how his music could still be played properly. And while Blakey was relaxed yet businesslike in the studio Monk, for all his uncommunicative exterior, was totally alert and his few spoken interventions were highly pertinent to the job in hand.
The session was divided into a solo set spread over three hours, most of which can be found on The London Collection Vol. 1 (Black Lion 760101), followed by a three-hour trio workout re-presented on Vol. 2 (760116). The remaining material heard herein consists of titles squeezed out of those volumes but originally issued on Black Lion in the early 1970's, together with items previously only available in a Mosaic boxed set. This applies to the two takes of Trinkle Tinkle, one of Monk's most pianistic tunes which becomes even more involved as he plays around with the time during Take 2. (The only musical fault to be found with Take 1 may be a slight hesitation in the third middle-8, but the slight clicking noise in the keyboard action on both takes disappeared after Monk finger-nails were trimmed!)
The Man I Love begins with an admirably straight reading of the well-known melody, contrasted with an equally clear enunciation of typical Monk voicings underneath, which sound so acceptable by now that they really ought to be what Gershwin originally intended. Another one-take performance, Something In Blue is such a simple blues that it's easy to miss how inventive Monk is within the framework: notice, for instance, the subliminal quotations from Blues Five Spot in the 4th chorus, from Rhapsody In Blue (end of the 5th), Aunt Hagar's Blues (8th), Straight No Chaser (9th) and Blue Monk (10th). Introspection, not hitherto issued on Black Lion, was performed at the suggestion of Monk's wife Nellie, and the solo run-through was a demonstration of its changes to Al McKibbon for the version with Blakey which follows later.
The trio makes its bow on Crepuscule With Nellie, the one piece which Monk always played straight with no improvisation, and on the previously unreleased take of Nutty which was mainly to acquaint Al McKibbon with the chord sequence. The performance of Hackensack is from the first take, not issued at the time because of a slight rhythmic misunderstanding after the drum solo which is only resolved during the last 16 bars. Evidence, again not on Black Lion before but also (like Nutty) not in the Mosaic edition, is a first take of Monk's most minimal yet complex composition-at the opposite extreme from Trinkle Tinkle while in the same key-and makes a fitting conclusion to The London Collection.
Co-author, Jazz: The Essential Companion (Grafton/Paladin)
Postscript: Chordially, was actually the first music from this session and is, in some ways, the most extraordinary of the entire set. Certainly it's the most unusual, for we seldom have the chance to hear nearly ten minutes of a major jazz musician warming up. That is, not so much getting himself in shape as checking out the responsiveness and state of health of the piano he has to work with-let us not forget that other performers carry their instruments with them but 'acoustic' pianists, and in more recent times drummers and occasionally bassists on international tours, have to make out with whatever is provided for them. But what is fascinating is that Monk, being a composer, is unable to carry out this routine task without at the same time experimenting with chord densities and creating potential new melodies. There are reminiscences of old melodies too (especially Pannonica and perhaps Monk's Mood), but Monk is not yet ready to play, merely to explore, and this one and only glimpse into his workshop is beyond price.
1. Trinkle Tinkle (Take 2) 5:58 * (a)
2. The Man I Love 5:16 (a)
3. Something In Blue 6:41 (a)
4. Introspection (Take 1) 1:12 ** (a)
5. Trinkle Tinkle (Take 1) 5:52 * (a)
6. Crepuscule With Nellie (Take 3) 2:20 * (b)
7. Nutty (Take 1) 4:16 * (b)
8. Introspection (Take 3) 3:09 ** (b)
9. Hackensack (Take 1) 9:04 * (b)
10. Evidence (Take 1) 7:09 * (b)
11. Chordially (Improvisation) 9:43 ** (a)
* Previously Unreleased Alternative Take
** Previously Unreleased
THELONNIOUS MONK (Piano) (a & b)
Al McKibbon (Bass) (b)
ART BLAKEY (Drums) (b)
Recorded At Chappell Studios, London 15th November 1971
Recording Engineer: John Timperley
Produced By: Alan Bates
Sleeve Photograph: Rey Avery