Time Machine to Jazz HeavenThelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane -
at Carnegie Hall
Review by Brad WalsethImagine if you will the scene: Friday night, November 29th 1957, New York City's Carnegie Hall; a benefit concert for underprivileged black youths. The featured players that night: Billie Holliday, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Chet Baker and Zoot Sims, Sonny Rollins, and a 4 piece combo that has been appearing at the Five Spot nightclub for the past months: the Thelonious Monk Quartet. Monk has just come out of a 6 year ban from performing due to a trumped up narcotics charge and is feeling his oats - ready to confront the world with his imaginative songs, while the quartet features (in small print no less) a young saxophonist, freshly off a stint in Miles' band and newly clean from a heroin addiction: a man by the name of John Coltrane. Imagine being present for that bill.
Fast forward to 2005, when a Library of Congress supervisor noticed several tape reels in storage hand labeled "Monk" and discovered to his amazement that the pairing of Monk and Coltrane at this event had been recorded and survived.
The recording would be notable just for the parties involved, but adding to the experience is the fact that the music the quartet plays at the concert is utterly first rate. The Coltrane we hear on this recording has just recorded his stunning solo debut Blue Train, and has been working with Monk for months, absorbing the master pianist's heady music theories while laboriously attempting to master his complex chords and arrangements. Monk, meanwhile, seems bemused and energized by the younger man and joyfully responds to Coltrane's enthusiasm with more melodic counterpoint than is usually heard from the seer of the tone row and block chord comping.
The interplay between the two men, sensitively backed by their usual rhythm section, is a wonder to behold, and the acoustics of the Hall enhance what must have been an amazing event. Trane's sheets of sound are now in evidence, but he still carries with him the melodic impressions of Bird and Paul Gonsalves. He is still searching for his own true form on this date, but the search is one of beauty, and you can sense the giant coming into his own.
Thankfully, since time machine technology has yet to be realized, Blue Note has released the newfound treasure, perhaps the most important jazz recording since the release of Coltrane's Complete Africa Brass Sessions. This concert recording is a stunning historical document of two greats in their prime, and as nearly a perfect a jazz recording as exists in the canon.
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