MONK AND 'TRANE
Author: Bruce Jenkins Date Posted:9 July 2021
John Coltrane may have produced more influential albums than 1958’s Blue Train, but it is arguable he made few recordings as enduringly popular as this big brass-driven jazz classic. Joined by Lee Morgan on trumpet, and Curtis Fuller on trombone, the front line is ably supported by pianist Kenny Drew, Paul Chambers (bass) and drummer Philly Joe Jones.
Comprising four Coltrane originals and one 'standard' (Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer’s "I’m Old Fashioned"), Blue Train is bursting with energy and creativity. Every solo—from the moment 'Trane steps forward after the intro to "Blue Train" through to Kenny Drew’s sparkling break in closing number "Lazy Bird"—is charged and focussed; it’s like the entire group was feeding off the leader’s intensity and giving it their best. (Incidentally, if you have never considered the trombone a soulful instrument, this is the LP to change your mind; Fuller is terrific.) The result is a jazz album exploring blues themes in a way rarely achieved before, producing a work of lasting quality that delighted both critics and fans on release and will continue to do so as long as people are curious about jazz.
The jazz scene was always one where the important players kept an ear open to what others were doing. One who certainly clocked Coltrane’s emergence was pianist, composer, and innovator Thelonious Monk, who performed with 'Trane at Carnegie Hall just two months after the recording sessions for Blue Train. Those tapes languished in the US Library of Congress vaults for decades until restored for release in 2005 as Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. It’s fascinating to think of such historic and worthwhile recordings being lost and forgotten… then re-discovered. Yet exactly that happened again to Monk one decade later.
The story behind the release of an October 1968 concert by the Thelonious Monk Quartet at a Californian High School is strange and wonderful, neatly retold in the booklet accompanying Thelonious Monk — Palo Alto: The Custodian’s Mix (IMPULSE! 2020).
The year 1968 was a memorable one in the USA for all the wrong reasons. Two icons of American public life, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Civil rights abuses led to spot fires of rage and violence across the country. Culturally, rock music was now the dominant form with a spiralling cloud of innovation and emerging sounds that swamped almost everything else. Jazz veterans like Thelonious Monk were experiencing hard times, both personally and professionally. Yet none of that deterred 16 year-old student Danny Scher from deciding to organise a jazz concert at his Palo Alto High School and aiming to get Monk and his band to play. That he succeeded is a tribute to the young entrepreneur’s creativity and determination. That we get to hear the actual concert is down to a mysterious chance. An unnamed school janitor (elevated to 'Custodian' on the album cover) offered to tune the school’s piano in exchange for permission to record the show. Seemed like a good deal to the organiser, who was handed the tapes after the gig and promptly shelved them. Much, much later the tapes were exhumed. Scher contacted the son of the great pianist, setting in train events resulting in this irresistible archival release.
Monk and his quartet are in excellent form, opening at modest pace with "Ruby, my dear" where the composer and tenor player Charlie Rouse interact beautifully. (They’d been playing together for a decade). Clearly no-one is phoning in their parts, as is abundantly clear when the quartet launch into another Monk standard, "Well, you needn’t". Plenty of fire and trademark Monk dissonance as well as an uncommon (yet brilliant) bowed solo from bassist Larry Gales. The memorable tune jumps and bounces, delighting the audience. "Blue Monk" and "Epistrophy" both get outings; the entire recording is a live delight, even down to Monk’s squeaky piano stool. Recording quality is more than acceptable for the era while the IMPULSE! package, enhanced with a facsimile program and poster, only adds to the satisfaction. Well done, Thelonious, my old friend. Well done, young Danny Scher.
© Bruce Jenkins 2021