This month seems like an opportune time for a salute in Thelonious Monk’s direction, honoring both his 100th birthday and the 70th anniversary of the first of the Blue Note recording sessions that Monk aficionados generally consider his most important work. Highlights from these 1947–52 sessions have been gathered into a handy single-CD reissue that showcases the things that make Monk’s music so compelling: his catchy and highly chromatic jazz compositions, and his unique and piquant improv style that combines bebop and stride piano techniques with harmonic innovations from modern composed music.
Included are the first recordings of such Monk standards as Epistrophy, Straight No Chaser, Well You Needn’t, and ‘Round Midnight (the bane of many a piano student overwhelmed by its complicated chord changes). And then there’s Misterioso, a mini-compendium of Monkish eccentricities. It’s ostensibly a 12-bar blues in B♭, but its melody consists of non-swinging broken sixths that sound more like Scarlatti than bebop.
After Monk and vibraphonist Milt Jackson play through the tune, Jackson offers a fairly conventional solo lasting one chorus. Then Monk begins his solo, and things start getting weird. He spends one chorus toying around with the dissonant clash between D♭ and D♮, and a second chorus combining blues licks with whole-tone scales and long rests. When Jackson starts reprising the theme, Monk spends several bars plunking out harsh isolated notes in counterpoint before finally joining Jackson on the melody. The track ends with one last whole-tone flurry from Monk. Throw in the crude 78 Era sound quality, and the whole thing has a kind of primitive mystique to it, teetering more and more on the edge of crazy as it goes on—kind of a metaphor for Monk’s own life and mental health struggles. Have a listen, and (re)acquaint yourself with this unorthodox American musical genius.