Thelonious Monk - piano
Charlie Rouse - tenor saxophone
Bob Cranshaw - bass
Ben Riley - drums
With his unassuming tenorman Charlie Rouse still on board, Monk unveiled another new rhythm tandem for his July 3rd appearance at the 1964 Newport Jazz Festival. Bassist Bob Cranshaw had just joined the band following stints with Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Wilson and Lee Morgan. Filling Frankie Dunlop's shoes was 30-year-old drummer Ben Riley, who had been playing around New York with pianists Bobby Timmons, Junior Mance and Walter Bishop, Jr. (Dunlop had given his notice to Monk in January of 1964, announcing his intention to pursue an acting career).
Their Friday night appearance at Freebody Park followed a special afternoon piano workshop that Monk participated in earlier that day. Narrated by Billy Taylor, it featured solo performances by Willie "The Lion" Smith, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Monk himself, who nearly stole the show with his solo rendition of "Tea for Two." Monk was similarly inspired during his evening set, at one point flashing Tatumesque runs in the middle of his unaccompanied version of the melancholy jazz standard "Don't Blame Me."
They kick off their highly anticipated Friday evening set (coming as it did just four months after Monk's appearance on the cover of Time magazine) with "Bemsha Swing," an ebullient number co-written with Barbados-born drummer Denzil Best and which Monk first recorded in 1952 (the original copyrighted title was "Bimsha Swing," Bimsha being a nickname of Barbados). While Riley underscores the tune with a reliably swinging ride cymbal beat, his playing on this tune is more conventional than what the artfully sly Dunlop was capable of bringing to it on a nightly basis. Rouse's solo is typically bold and invigorating while Monk's piano solo here seems less harmonically probing and unpredictable than what we have come to expect from the enigmatic High Priest of Bop, though his fugue-like intertwining of lines with Rouse's tenor at the intro and outro to this tune are highly inventive.
Next up is the oft-recorded "Straight No Chaser," Monk's off-kilter blues which he originally recorded in 1951. Cranshaw and Riley handle this straightforward midtempo swinger with expert aplomb while Monk's fractured, dissonant comping provides an edge behind Rouse's smooth, fluent tenor work. At one point during Rouse's lengthy solo, Monk lays out entirely (possibly going on one of his signature strolls away from the piano during the course of a set). When he returns, Monk offers a wonderfully irreverent deconstruction of the theme on an extended solo that is infused with a flood of renegade ideas. Both Cranshaw's and Riley's solos here are merely serviceable, lacking the sheer invention and spontaneous streak that Warren and Dunlop had formerly brought to the quartet.
Monk's unaccompanied rendition of "Don't Blame Me" is a stirring tour de force of this Newport set. A sweet and sour interpretation of the Jimmy McHugh lament, originally written for the 1932 musical Clowns in Clover (with lyrics by Dorothy Fields), it was subsequently covered by everyone from Guy Lombardo, Ethel Waters, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Nat King Cole and the Everly Brothers. Monk's solo rendition (which he had originally recorded earlier this year on 1963's Criss-Cross) is simply sublime.
The quartet closes on an exhilarating note with Monk's "Rhythm-a-ning," a 1957 composition based on the chord changes to George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." Cranshaw and Riley pace this boppish romp nicely with their steadily swinging syncopated pulse. Monk's hammered, dissonant clusters spur Rouse through the first part of his solo, Midway through, as we suddenly hear the piano drop out of the mix, we can only surmise that Monk has once again gone on the stroll. Monk's own solo is marked by a series of descending arpeggios before resorting to a puckish deconstruction of the well known theme (while also dropping in a quote from his own namesake tune "Thelonious" along the way). (Milkowski)