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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

The loneliest monk strikes once again

Legendary jazz pianist Thelonious Monk was famous for leaving audiences hanging. He would end a song one note short, leaving the listener waiting to hear it resolved, but knowing that resolution would never come.

When archivists found a 48-year-old live recording at Carnegie Hall featuring the historically significant but rarely recorded Thelonious Monk Quartet with saxophonist John Coltrane, it seemed too good to be true. This was a resolution fifty years in the making.

When Larry Applebaum, a Library of Congress employee, stumbled across an unmarked box in the archives and found this recording, he probably thought some fellow librarians were trying to pull a fast one on him. A find like this would be like turning over the cheap painting in your living room and finding "DaVinci" scrawled across the back. Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane's collaboration in 1957 is well-known among many jazz fans; however, recordings are few and far between, and their sound quality is amateur at best.

The collaboration came at an important time in both musicians' careers. Monk's eccentric style was gaining acceptance, and he would soon become one of the leading figures in jazz. Even more so than Monk, Coltrane was poised for his breakthrough. Having just recovered from a heroin addiction that lead to his expulsion from Miles Davis's band, Coltrane was a man on a mission when he joined Monk. Within the next few years, Coltrane would become a monumental figure in jazz history, playing on Davis's landmark "Kind of Blue" (1959) and his own intensely personal "A Love Supreme" (1964).

Coltrane's passion is on display in this recording. On "Epistrophy" and "Bye-Ya," he hints at glimpses of things to come later in his career, blazing through his solos and stretching his limitations. These recordings will undoubtedly lead many jazz fans to question how much Coltrane's playing evolved from his time with Monk. It is clear that Monk's unorthodox stilted style of play kept Coltrane guessing and pushed him into a realm of experimentation that he probably hadn't experienced before.

The night's set kicked off with "Monk's Mood." Monk begins by exploring on the piano for the first two minutes, testing out different sounds and chords. Coltrane enters by himself, his playing slow and slightly melancholy, while Monk runs back and forth along the keyboard. At roughly four minutes, the rest of the quartet joins, the tempo picks up a bit, and the set hits its stride.

The album is book-ended by another signature Monk tune, "Blue Monk." The opening riff is immediately recognizable to many people, even those who don't listen to jazz. Monk and Coltrane start out playing in unison before playfully echoing each other. Soon, Coltrane takes off on a mind-bending solo, driving the original theme in a million different directions at once.

Perhaps Monk's finest moment comes on the ballad "Crepescule with Nellie." For the first half of the song, Monk's playing is stunningly sparse. But in the second half, Coltrane and the rest join in. The combination of Monk's ascending notes coupled with the beat of the drumming - which shines on this track - makes listeners feel like they're floating out of their seats.

For almost 50 years, jazz fans have first been exposed to the genre through classics like "Kind of Blue" or "A Love Supreme." Though "Carnegie Hall" will never match the historical and cultural significance of Davis's classic, it is destined to provide an introduction to generations of future listeners. Coltrane and Monk do it all on this record, from delicate ballads to blazing solos, creating an accessible and entertaining recording that's welcoming to uninitiated ears, all while pushing the limits of experimentation.

It may have taken Monk a while, but this resolution was worth the wait.

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