Long-Lost, Prime, Phantasmagorical Thelonious Monk Rescued From the Archives
About halfway through the version of Well, You Needn’t that Thelonious Monk played at Palo Alto High School in California on October 27, 1968, he launched into a slyly cartoonish parody of a football cheer song. In a split second, bassist Larry Gales – who had been in the middle of a darkly ambered, bowed solo until the bandleader interrupted him – was on it. This was a signal to the cool kids in the crowd. We feel your pain, Monk and his quartet were telling them.
Long before the web was anything more than a dial-up connection for the Pentagon, dodgy field recordings of every jazz icon who ever lived were ubiquitous, marketed to the unsophisticated and the completists for ridiculous prices. This album, streaming at Spotify, is not one of them. Monk may have been a notoriously nocturnal creature, but he’s on top of his game at what was probably the only high school gig he ever played, and the band are right there with him despite the early hour. This is a stereo recording, with relatively minor sonic defects, almost completely free of the dropouts that plague newly discovered tape from so long ago. Even with the ever-increasing glut of concert recordings by jazz hall-of-famers, this is a pretty big deal.
It’s about forty-five minutes of greatest-hits material. Just about the only place that Charlie Rouse’s tenor sax ends up distorting on the recording occurs as the band ease their way into the opener, Ruby My Dear. By the time he spirals up to the top of his solo over drummer Ben Riley’s spring-loaded groove, the problem has been fixed. The song only hints at the characteristic irony, and devious humor, phantasmagoria and momentary detours into the macabre that will follow shortly afterward.
Well, You Needn’t has all of that plus extended bass and drum solos where it seems the rest of the group go out for a smoke or the equivalent. Then Monk sends the band away for a steady, pouncing, unselfconsciously joyous solo take of Don’t Blame Me.
The jovial, extended version of Blue Monk – which really never was more than a reworking of the old blues song Since I Met You Baby – has workmanlike, crescendoing solos from the whole band, then the show hits a peak with a determined, gritty, fanged take of Epistrophy. No pianist ever played Monk with fewer notes than Monk himself, so Rouse seizes the moment to be allusive as Riley has fun with offbeats and wry flurries on the toms. There’s also a momentary solo encore, I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams, the bandleader choosing to end it with a trio of icepick passing tones. He had to cut the song short so he could get back on the road for a gig in San Francisco that night. Familiar as all this material is, it’s prime Monk, straight, no chaser.