CD review

Thelonious Monk – “Palo Alto” (recorded 1968)

Thelonious Monk – Palo Alto
(Impulse! 00602507112851. CD Review by Peter Jones)

By 1968 Thelonious Monk was considered a bit vieux chapeau in some quarters. It was well past bebop, and the intervening years had seen many new pretenders to the piano crown – Evans, Peterson, Hancock, Tyner – and it was the year that both Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett made their first solo albums. As the great man’s biographer Robin D.G. Kelley points out in his terrific contextual sleeve notes, Columbia Records (Monk’s label while he was alive) were terrified that he was being left in the dust by his successors. They even tried to promote his new Underground album as… well, “underground” – a pose you had to strike in order to get taken seriously in 1968, or so they thought. But Monk was not underground, he was what he had always been – a pianist who had carved out a unique and instantly recognisable sound at the piano, a composer of timeless genius who had burst on to the scene at the beginning of the previous decade. He wasn’t about to change his style, and Underground didn’t sound markedly different from anything he’d recorded before, apart from the appearance of Jon Hendricks on In Walked Bud.

In the same year, he and his regular quartet – Charlie Rouse (tenor saxophone), Larry Gales (bass) and Ben Riley (drums) – played a high school gig in Palo Alto, California, organised by one of the students. By chance it was recorded by the school’s janitor, and the quality is outstanding – partly thanks again to this janitor, whose name nobody can remember, who also arranged for the piano to be tuned. (It’s a shame he wasn’t on hand to do the same on Underground.)

What’s so great about Palo Alto is its relaxed energy and the integrated feel of a well-established band. The gig took place on a wet Sunday afternoon, but the school auditorium was full, and the racially mixed audience warmly appreciated Monk. They had already listened to a couple of local combos from nearby Stanford University – a band called Smoke, and the Jimmy Marks Afro-Ensemble, featuring Eddie Bo on electric flute. A reproduction of the gig’s poster is included in the CD packaging, and there are also some priceless stories in the notes: a young white woman approached Monk as he waited to go on stage and asked him, “Does the rain influence your playing?” “I hope so,” replied Monk. (He was prone to these gnomic utterances: Jon Hendricks was as baffled as everyone else when Monk said things like, “Two is one,” and “It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light.”)

The album kicks off with what sounds like tuning up, segueing into the ballad Ruby, My Dear, taken at a slightly faster tempo than usual, giving it a brighter sound. This is followed by a lengthy version of Well You Needn’t, on which everyone gets to solo, including Gales on arco bass. Monk plays the Jimmy McHugh-Dorothy Fields tune Don’t Blame Me solo, at a stately tempo, and in a consciously antique stride style that nods to the likes of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. Then it’s straight into Blue Monk, with boogie-woogie left hand on the intro. Everyone gets some good solo time, and you realise how Monk-like Rouse’s tenor could be. Epistrophy is another one taken at a livelier clip than the studio recordings, with an enjoyably chaotic finish. The audience demand an encore, and Monk obliges with a short piano version of an old-timey ballad called I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams, complete with creaking piano bench, stabbed melody notes and fabulously Monkish harmony. The band had a date that evening at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. “We have to hurry back to get to work, ya dig?” explains Monk over the wild applause.

Peter Jones’s This is Bop: Jon Hendricks and the Art of Vocal Jazz is published by Equinox in November.

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