From the smoothest lines to the screeching, racing notes that resonate like a flock of geese overhead, John Coltrane’s sax has always mesmerized listeners. Forty years after his death, he and the Thelonious Monk Quartet still have a best-selling jazz album.
John Coltrane, who emerged as a timid yet strong sideman in the early 1950s and went on to become one of the most influential jazz musicians of the century, always learned from those with whom he played. On this newly released album, the interaction between two of the greatest players of all time is heard: pianist Thelonious Monk and saxophonist John Coltrane.
To understand this album, one must know when and why it was recorded. In 1957, after Coltrane was released from the Miles Davis’ Quintet for heroin use, he teamed up with Thelonious Monk. Clean, revitalized and ready to jump back into the music scene, Coltrane learned from Monk and transformed his style in a matter of months. He moved away from his early “cool” sounds to the wild Coltrane style of “Giant Steps.”
Discovered recently in an unlabeled box in the Library of Congress, this album is the only recording of the Thelonious Monk Quartet with Coltrane that has quality sound. On it we can hear Monk’s multitonal effects influence on Coltrane and the daring leap he was forced to take by playing Monk’s complex songs. This concert is a landmark in jazz history.
The first set opens with a solo piano intro to “Monk’s Mood,” presenting a familiar Monk sound: spare notes, cascading, dreamy scales, and jagged chords that stick out like nails. Next, Coltrane steps in with a clean and beautiful sax, helping with an extended intro. As soon as Shadow Wilson and Ahmed Abdul-Malik enter with bass and drums, the remarkable tightness of the band is evident; each musician learns and plays off the other.
They then move into “Evidence,” a much faster song. Coltrane is able to utilize his speedy solo method, introducing the basis of his “Sheets of Sound” style. He runs up and down his notes like a staircase, then levels the tune back down for Monk’s solo.
A great cut of “Epistrophy” is played, along with a memorable “Sweet & Lovely” in which Monk plays his superb sax and then accelerates into a zippy tune carried by Coltrane’s explosive solo.
This new release is not only a must-have for any serious jazz listener, but a great pick for anyone looking to enter the genre. It can only be hoped that another gem like this will be discovered. .
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.