On each of his first three recordings for Riverside Thelonious Monk included a solo piano presentation, and for many listeners these were the highlights of each recital. And so it was decided that Monk’s fourth Riverside recording, THELONIOUS HIMSELF, would be composed entirely of solo interpretations…well, almost.
Those accustomed to the effusive stylings of keyboard masters such as Art Tatum might be baffled by Monk’s approach. Monk is essentially a minimalist, a virtuoso of color, accent and space, who relinquished the technical trappings of his craft in pursuit of a specific aesthetic vision. Strip away the more extravagant aspects of Tatum’s art–the showy runs, the ornate grace notes, the profuse modulations and asides–and you’re left with an advance harmonic thinker, firmly rooted in the rhythmic pulsation of stride, not unlike Monk’s “Functional.” The main difference being that where Tatum compulsively fills space, Monk (like Basie) establishes a masterful sense of implication, so that listeners finish phrases in their own minds.
Like a great actor finding heretofore obscure layers of meaning in a familiar soliloquy, Monk takes familiar themes such as “April In Paris,” “I Should Care” and “Almost Alone” and distills them down to a singing essence. Where most pianists would simply expand upon the tune (or employ the chord changes as a showcase for their own variations), Monk keeps everything focused on thematic materials. You can hear Monk working towards this goal on the work-in-progress CD bonus track of his own classic theme, “‘Round Midnight,” and on the conclusive master take. For his final selection, “Monk’s Mood,” the pianist insisted on adding bassist Wilbur Ware and an up-and-coming tenor saxophonist named John Coltrane. By allowing them to italicize and expand upon his bass lines and lead melody, Monk enabled listeners to zero in on the essence of his solo and ensemble styles.
01 – April in Paris
02 – (I Don’t Stand) A Ghost of a Chance with You
03 – Functional
04 – I’m Getting Sentimental Over You
05 – I Should Care
06 – ‘Round Midnight
07 – All Alone
08 – Monk’s Mood
09 – ‘Round Midnight (in progress)
Thelonious Monk – piano
John Coltrane – tenor sax (on #8)
Wilbur Ware – bass (on #8)
Recorded at Reeves Sound Studios, New York City; April 5 and 16, 1957
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