Thelonious Monk - piano; Paul Jeffrey - tenor saxophone; Larry Ridley - bass; Thelonious Monk, Jr. - drums
By the time of this appearance at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall (on a split bill with Keith Jarrett's American quartet featuring tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian), Monk's health was in decline and his emotional state was no better. He had been taking Thorazine for years to manage his bouts of depression and manic episodes, and was in and out of hospitals during the early '70s, barely gigging at all in 1973 and 1974. Monk's only public appearance in 1975, in fact, came at this July 3rd performance as part of the Newport Jazz Festival.
George Wein, whose relationship with Monk went back to the iconic jazz pianist-composer's appearance at the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1955, introduced the quartet which featured Monk's 25-year-old son Thelonious Jr. (aka Toot) on drums, Larry Ridley on bass and tenor saxophonist Paul Jeffrey, who had replaced Charlie Rouse, an anchor in Monk's group for 11 years before leaving the band in 1970 to pursue a solo career.
The newly configured lineup opens this July 3rd set with the buoyantly swinging "I Mean You," a Monk gem first recorded in 1946 by Coleman Hawkins and subsequently recorded by Monk himself in 1948. Jeffrey turns in a heroic performance on tenor, wailing through the changes while nonchalantly double-timing on his urgent solo as Toot sparks the proceedings with brash energy on the kit and some jaunty ride cymbal work. Monk's playing on this upbeat number - the signature dissonant block chording, the formidable left-handed statements and mercurial right-handed lines -- is remarkably spry for someone who had essentially been in semi-retirement for three years. Ridley, a more substantial soloist than many of Monk's previous bassists, also contributes some virtuosic turns on his extended upright bass solo here, alternating between audacious double stops and nimble pizzicato work.
Next up is "Blue Bolivar Blues" (originally titled "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-Are" when Monk recorded it in 1956 for Riverside). A lively, quirky blues, the title refers to the Hotel Bolivar in Manhattan, where Monk's friend and benefactor the Baroness Nica de Koenigswater resided before she moved to Weehawken. Toot paces the tune with a loping swing feel as Jeffrey digs into the inherent bluesiness of the piece with purposeful strides on his tenor sax, gradually building to effortless double-time phrases over Monk's leisurely, laid back comping. Monk's piano solo here is full of deliberate phrases and imbued with a sense of angularity on the blues changes. Ridley again showcases his facility on the low-end with another imaginative bass solo. "We See" is an affecting melody originally written by Monk in 1954. Coming out of the knotty head, Jeffrey launches into a stellar tenor solo (more fluid and rhythmically adventurous in some ways than Rouse's previous contributions to the band) against the loping undercurrent propelled by Monk's stride-like piano work (dig his left hand) and Thelonious Jr.'s laid back approach to the kit. The elder Monk also delivers a gem of a piano solo, showing that at age 57 he still had plenty left in the tank. Ridley contributes another outstanding solo, giving further evidence that he just may have been Monk's most adventurous bassist. And Jeffrey returns with a brief tenor extrapolation before returning to the head.
"Misterioso," originally written by Monk in 1948 for one of his early Blue Note sessions, is the next featured number. Essentially a 12-bar blues, it opens with a chamber-like configuration in which Monk and Jeffrey engage in some deliberate counterpoint on a distinctive theme built on ascending and descending parallel sixths. Coming out of that intricate head, the quartet settles into a slow 12-bar theme with Jeffrey digging into earthy fabric of the profoundly blue piece on his relaxed tenor solo with soulful, behind-the-beat phrasing that recalls Ben Webster in deep blue mode. Monk follows with a brilliant solo in which he offers up fractured lines and utterly surprising note choices while remaining true to the form, as if deconstructing the blues from the inside out. Ridley then follows with a downhome bowed bass solo that combines the essence of old school bowmeisters like Slam Stewart and Major Holley with renegade harmonic ideas.
Following a rousing ovation from the appreciative Avery Fisher Hall crowd, the Monk quartet encores with his most famous number, the darkly alluring ballad "'Round Midnight." Originally recorded by the Cootie Williams Orchestra in 1944, Monk first recorded it himself as a leader on his initial Blue Note session in 1947. Some 30 years later at the time of this Newport concert, that classic number still resonates with profound emotion that has an immediate effect on listeners. Monk opens the piece with a remarkable solo piano extrapolation that only slightly alludes to the familiar theme. Jeffrey offers another outstanding, heartfelt solo on this melancholy number, adding to a strong case that his contribution to Monk's legacy may have been sadly overlooked by historians. Toot also underscores this memorable, affecting number with some deft brushwork. Monk's solo here is a coherent, well-crafted gem that seems to delight the audience.
In spite of the lithium treatments he had been on since 1972, Thelonious was on top of his game this night in 1975. The following year, he would make his last public appearance at Carnegie Hall with this same potent outfit as part of the 1976 Newport Jazz Festival. He then went into seclusion and was rarely seen through the last five years of his life. On February 5, 1982, the 64-year-old Monk suffered a stroke and was taken to Englewood Hospital in New Jersey. He lay in a coma for 12 days before passing away at 8:10 a.m. on February 17. Over 1,000 people crammed into St. Peter's Church in Manhattan on February 22 to attend Monk's memorial. George Wein was among those offering personal testimony at the service to the High Priest of Bop.
-Written by Bill Milkowski