Thelonious Monk - piano
Charlie Rouse - tenor sax
Butch Warren - bass
Frankie Dunlop - drums
Monk came to Newport in 1963, to celebrate the 10th year of George Wein's annual summer festival with a group which by that time had become solidified as his longstanding working quartet featuring tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse and the reliably swinging rhythm tandem of bassist Butch Warren and drummer Frankie Dunlop. Together they enlivened the Newport faithful with an exhilarating set on a gala Thursday evening, which also saw dynamic performances by the Cannonball Adderley Sextet, Nina Simone, and the Stan Kenton Orchestra.
The quartet opens with the propulsive, swinging "Criss-Cross," a 1951 composition full of Monk's signature dissonance and spiky comping and imbued with a sparkling line doubled by piano and tenor. Rouse's solo is robust and raucous to suit the idiosyncratic mood of the piece while Monk's sprightly solo is mercurial and playfully askew. Warren is given plenty of room to stretch out on a bass solo here while Dunlop, an underrated drummer who cuts up the beat in slickly intuitive ways behind the other soloists, launches into an uncannily melodic solo on the kit before the crew returns to the angular head.
"Light Blue" is Monk's fragile if plodding meditation on the blues built on descending chord progressions. The quirky melody is played in unison by Monk and Rouse upfront before Rouse breaks loose for an absolutely masterful tenor solo, nonchalantly double-timing the molasses-slow tempo with bristling, harmonically daring lines while imbuing the track with deep soul. Monk's own solo here is a deliberate and brilliant extrapolation on the oddly engaging theme, with some allusions along the way to the Harlem stride piano masters he so admired as a developing player. Bassist Warren also offers a marvelous take on the distinctive 16-bar theme during his beautifully expressive solo.
Emcee Willis Connover (he of the imposing pipes from Voice of America) next announces "an historic first meeting of two major figures in jazz" as surprise guest Pee Wee Russell is trotted out on stage to join the quartet. An unlikely choice, clarinetist Russell (who was 57 at the time of this Newport jam) was from an earlier generation and primarily known as a Dixieland player, although his propensity for taking things "out" within the form was a well-known aspect of his highly individual musical makeup. Wein imagined that two such eccentric figures as Monk and Russell were bound to hit it off. As he wrote in his autobiography: "I had long felt that Pee Wee, despite his established identity as a Chicago-style clarinetist, used intervals in a way that suggested the most modern approaches to improvisation... Pee Wee, you will have noticed, never uses an interval you will be expecting, which is part of the great appeal of his playing. Monk is the same. He is, of course, more concerned with the harmonic concept, but his intervals are usually where one would least expect them to be. Although Monk is a little more 'out' than Pee Wee, their approach to jazz is in many ways very similar. They both play what to many people are dischords, they are both always looking that that note - that note that is right yet different."
Russell's note choices on his solo to the buoyant mid-tempo swinger "Nutty" are unpredictable and bordering on the abstract, as if he were trying to out-Monk Monk in this rare encounter. Rouse and Warren both turn in outstanding solos, and drummer Dunlop again demonstrates the melodic possibilities of a brisk touch on the kit during his superb unaccompanied solo. Rouse's solo on "Blue Monk" is typically heroic and strictly within the harmonic framework of that well known, straightforward blues, while Russell again takes great liberties with the piece by drifting into the Webern-meets-Stravinsky zone during his wayward solo. By comparison, Monk's own solo which follows is positively inside. Wein wanted different, and he definitely got it with Pee Wee Russell. How well the clarinetist's abstractions meshed with Monk's well-honed unit, however, remains to be seen. (Milkowski)