Monk Spins Sweetly at 45rpm's

It is difficult to grasp the date this session was recorded: December of 1956. That makes it almost 50 years old. Yet the music is as utterly fresh and full of surprises and good humor as it was in 1956. And the sound remains vibrant and full bodied as well; the highs extended and crisp, the transients sharp and clean. In fact, this double 45rpm set positively kills the Riverside original in every way: I know, because I’ve owned a copy since the mid ‘60s. During my first year at Cornell in 1964, either Riverside was going out of business or needed some quick cash, because the book store had what seemed like the entire Riverside catalog on sale for $1.98. I bought as many as I could afford.

Orrin Keepnews’ original liner notes characterize the music as being “…not the easiest listening.” That may have been true in 1956, but 50 years later, there’s nothing difficult about Monk’s odd, sometimes dissonant chordings, his off-kilter melodies or his jumpy rhythms.

This set features an all star assemblage including on various cuts Sonny Rollins, Ernie Henry, Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach, Paul Chambers and Clark Terry. Of course the star is Monk who sounds like an old-fashioned stride piano player on acid. It will take but the first few measures of the title tune to get you to crack a smile or plain laugh out loud. With its slinky, sliding rhythms, changing tempi and odd punctuation marks, it’s jazz as stand-up comedy.

The deliberate, cascading “Pannonica,” named for Monk’s long-time friend and patron The Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter (though when this was recorded they’d only known each other two years), finds Monk playing the bell-toned celeste, and during some of the tune, piano, simultaneously. The clarity, transparency and purity of the celeste will blow you away. 50 years later, the tune retains all of its pungency and power.

Monk covers the pop standard “I Surrender Dear” solo, opening with a florid statement of the melody before deconstructing it with stutter step single note repetitions and dramatic runs up and down the keyboard. My previous exposure to the tune was the bombastic version on the (in) famous Command Records “audiophile” demo record Persuasive Percussion. Monk’s ingenious take was an ear opener for this young jazz neophyte!

The set ends with Monk’s familiar “Bemsha Swing,” featuring Clark Terry on trumpet and Max Roach playing tympani simultaneously with his drum kit. The exaggerated, springy, swooped second note of the catchy riff gives it a humorous feel that Rollins, Terry and Roach (on tympani) capitalize on throughout.

I played this miraculously mastered 2 LP set for a friend who’s owned the original since it was first issued and he sat there slack jawed. What Gray and Hoffman have done here is astounding. If you know the record, you will be stunned by the clarity, transparency and dynamic slam of this edition, and you’ll marvel at the harmonic complexity and percussive purity of the piano, which sounds boxy on every other edition I’ve ever heard. If you don’t think a mono record can deliver enormous soundstage depth, wait until you hear where Roach’s drum kit sits in the soundfield.

While Bill Evans’s Waltz For Debby was the first 45 in the series to sell out, this is the one I’d covet. Don’t miss this! Get it while you can. You won’t regret spending 50 clams on this almost 50 year old classic.