Thelonious Monk – Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane ★★★★★

Monk and ColtraneRiverside/OJC Remaster

Thelonious Monk (p), Ray Copeland (t), Gigi Gryce (as), John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins (ts), Wilbur Ware (b), Art Blakey and Shadow Wilson (d). Rec. 1957

For decades these sessions remained tantalising evidence of what might have been. In 1957, Coltrane was trying to reconcile the world of the junkie with the world of a successful musician in the most high-profile sideman gig in jazz as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet. It wasn’t working out and after a run at the Café Bohemia which ended on 28 April, Davis, exasperated with his sideman’s unpredictability, unceremoniously fired him. Coltrane seized the opportunity of getting his life in order, and during a two-week period in May apparently won the battle against heroin. He had earlier begun to rehearse informally with Monk, and ‘Monk’s Mood’ from 12 April included here was actually recorded while Coltrane was still with Davis. From that point Coltrane began to see more of Monk, rehearsing informally during the summer of that year. The June session with a larger ensemble includes Coleman Hawkins, with whom Monk first recorded with as a sideman in the 1940s and who was an early influence on Coltrane. According to trumpeter Ray Copeland, Coltrane was nodding off during ‘Well You Needn’t’ and Monk called “Coltrane, Coltrane” to indicate his solo turn. Coltrane comes in immediately, surely more ready than Copeland thought.

Soon after, possibly 18 July, Coltrane joined Monk’s trio making it a quartet at the Five Spot at 5 Cooper Square in Greenwich Village – a collaboration that has subsequently acquired the stuff of legend – in a residency that lasted for most of 1957. Lewis Porter, Coltrane’s most lucid biographer, reports that most listeners present during this period were overwhelmed, citing quotes by J. J. Johnson and Francois Postif that only add to myths that swirl around this historic moment in jazz history. Coltrane has always credited Monk for the significant artistic growth he experienced during the latter period of 1957.

An indication of where he was headed can be heard on the quartet track ‘Trinkle, Tinkle’ from July 1957, albeit there were many months of nightly magic on the bandstand to pass under the bridge at this stage. During the tenure of the Five Spot gig, Coltrane’s stature as a musician grew visibly with the result that he was in the recording studios an incredible ten times, twice as a leader for Prestige, once for a special session for Blue Note and the rest as a sideman. Yet for all the historic significance of these Riverside recordings, we get an incomplete picture of Coltrane’s artistic development with Monk and for years jazz historians have yearned for elusive evidence of his final leap into greatness (something that was by no means apparent to contemporaneous observers at the beginning of 1957, including Orrin Keepnews who produced the Monk/Coltrane Riverside dates).

Over the decades writers have expressed exasperation that Riverside (who would later record Monk with Johnny Griffin live at the very same Five Spot club) did not document this incredibly important partnership with live recordings. As if in answer to a maiden’s prayer, in 2005 Larry Apelbaum of the Library of Congress stumbled on a set of previously unknown recordings of a Carnegie Hall concert by this group from 29 November 1957. On the nine tracks issued on Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall we finally get an indication of how far the rehabilitated Coltrane had travelled during this time, a snapshot more valuable than even these historic Riverside recordings, but that, as they say, is another story.

– Stuart Nicholson

Thelonious Monk – Brilliant Corners ★★★★★

Monk Brilliant CornersPoll Winners Records

Thelonious Monk (p), Clark Terry (t) Sonny Rollins (ts), Ernie Henry (as), Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers, Tommy Potter (b), Max Roach and Art Taylor (d). Rec. 1954 and 1956

Today, musicians tackle Monk’s music with apparent ease to where it has now become repertory. But it wasn’t always like that. Back then, it really separated the men from the boys. Brilliant in both title and content this album may well be, but by all accounts it was a bitch to make. The title track being patched together, by producer Orrin Keepnews, from fragments of no less than 25 incomplete takes. But seemingly, the three separate sessions that were needed to actually complete the five original tracks were all fraught with tension and frustration. For instance only four tracks use horns: while Rollins appears on all four, Ernie Henry plays on three while Clark Terry is only heard on ‘Bemsha Swing’. To make up for a shortfall in time, an unaccompanied Monk slipped behind the keyboard to rework ‘I Surrender, Dear.’ Perhaps because this was far from being a conveyor belt blowing session, all the participants had to face up to what became a real challenge when not only getting to grips with the dangerous curves that beset the title track but also ‘Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are’ and ‘Pannonica’. Whatever the motivation, both Rollins and Henry seldom played better than right here. And the eventual outcome? One of the truly great indispensible albums.

Do note, having slipped into the public domain in terms of copyright, versions of Brilliant Corners are mushrooming. The only difference between this release and the official reissue is the addition of three tracks taped two years earlier. Other than that, it has the same sleeve design and sleeve note.

– Roy Carr

Eric Dolphy – The Complete Last Recordings In Hilversum And Paris 1964 ★★★★★

Eric DolphyDomino Jazz

Dolphy (as, b clt, fl), Kenny Drew, Jacques Dieval, Misha Mengelberg (p) Jacques Hess, Guy Pedersen, Jacques Schols (b), Franco Manzecchi, Han Bennink and Daniel Humair (d). Rec. 1964

Consider this: these performances date from the early June of 1964. By the end of the month Eric Dolphy was lying dead in a hospital bed in Berlin in very controversial circumstances, the widespread theory being that he was administered the wrong treatment because it was assumed that, as an African-American jazz musician, he was a junkie. As soul-destroying as that may be, it is nonetheless spirit raising to hear music of such beauty and vitality from a man who was so close to death.

The first three pieces of this handsomely packaged and informatively annotated double CD of recordings made during Dolphy’s final European tour are as potent a reminder of his genius as any of the studio recordings that he made prior, with the exception, perhaps, of Out To Lunch. He whizzes through ‘Epistrophy’, ‘South Street Exit’ and ‘The Madrig Speaks’, ‘The Panther Walks’ on bass clarinet, alto sax and flute and the multitude of sounds and soaring lyricism that he coaxes from all three reeds are remarkable. On the first instrument, he is bending pitch and uncovering such unusual timbres that he practically enters wah wah guitar territory without the aid of any electric gizmos. The effect is enough to turn even the most conservative of heads. But what Dolphy was doing with his music structurally, namely heading out to ‘New Music’ polytonality all the while not entirely abandoning chord-stamped swing and bop principles, was no less fascinating, and the input of A-list American expatriates and Europeans, several of whom, like a young Han Bennink, went on to become masters in their own right, is also noteworthy. Essential listening.

– Kevin Le Gendre

Sun Ra – Arkestra Sunrise In Different Dimensions ★★★★★

Sun RaHatOLOGY

Sun Ra (p), Marshall Allen(as,ob,f), John Gilmore (ts, cl, f), Nöel Scott (as, bs, f), Danny Thompson (bs, f), Kenneth Williams (ts, bs), Michael Ray t, flhn), Chris Henderson and Eric Walker (d). Rec. 1980

This third edition of the Sun Ra Arkestra’s 1980 Willisau concert restores one of their, and arguably jazz music’s, greatest live recordings. Playing a mixture of original compositions and flamboyant covers by such masters as Billy Strayhorn, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, Ra and some of the core members of his Arkestra (Gilmore, Allen, Thompson and Ray) unleash a storm of unfettered free blowing and keyboard fury that is tempered by moments of exquisite creative tenderness.

Ra’s opening piano solo ‘Light From A Hidden Sun’ acts as the clarion call for Michael Ray to join him on ‘Pin-Points Of Spiral Prisms’ as the rest of the Arkestra slowly group together behind him, before totally exploding on ‘Silhouettes Of The Shadow World’. Here free jazz crashes headlong into full-blown modern composition, where the juxtaposition of Ra’s futuristic originals and his reworking of jazz standards like ‘Cocktails For Two’, ‘King Porter Stomp’ and ‘Take The A Train’ still shines as brightly as a newly discovered star in the firmament.

– Edwin Pouncey

Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) ★★★★★

miles davis bitches brewColumbia Legacy (3 CD, DVD, 2 LP box)  

Miles Davis (t),Wayne Shorter (ss), Bennie Maupin (b cl), Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea (el p), John McLaughlin (g), Dave Holland (b), Harvey Brooks (el b), Lenny White, Jack DeJohnette (d), Don Alias and Jumma Santos (perc) plus others. Rec. 1969-1970, plus DVD 1968

Originally issued as a 90-minute double gatefold album in April 1970, Bitches Brew was Davis’ first gold album and provided his second Grammy (for “Best Jazz Performance by a Large Group”). It has hardly been out of the Columbia catalogue since. In 1998, The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions containing the original six song sequence from the double LP set plus nine unissued tracks was released, the third in the Columbia/Legacy’s Miles Davis Series following Miles Davis And Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings and Miles Davis Quintet 1965-’68: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings.

After such a comprehensive reissue job, you might think that there was little more to be said that we didn’t already know. However, this anniversary edition of Bitches Brew follows in the same spirit as the 2008 award winning Kind of Blue re-release. The original albums are reissued on 180gram vinyl, which I prefer to the CD transfers. The music is warmer and there is a better spatial sense than the somewhat clinical sound of the CD reissues, despite the fact that Bitches Brew was effectively an exercise in musique concrète by producer Teo Macero – in fact it was one of the first jazz recordings that was deconstructed in post-production and it is only from its reconstructed form we construe its meaning. Also, the original cover art by Mati Klarwein (who also provided the artwork for Santana’s Abraxas and The Last Poets’ This is Madness among others) provides a visual counterpoint to the music which adds to the drama of the LP listening experience – the small, somewhat humdrum CD jewel caskets reduce the meaning and impact of 12-inch LP cover art, something all vinyl fans have never forgiven the record industry for.

In addition, there is a DVD of a previously unissued concert by the Miles quintet with Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette from Copenhagen in November 1968 that is worth its weight in gold, not only providing a visual correlative to a very exciting and colourful period of Davis career, but also adding to the documentation we have of Davis turning jazz inside out. At the time of this concert Davis was at the beginning his odyssey into electric music, with only Corea’s Fender Rhodes and DeJohnette’s rock rhythms betraying his new direction. Both the vision and sound enjoy wonderful clarity, making this essential Miles.

The set also includes three CDs, the first is the original Bitches Brew sessions in their original eight-track studio versions, which sound as if they are the Complete transfers, the second comprises six bonus tracks, with alternate takes of ‘Spanish Key’ and ‘John McLaughlin’ that did not appear on The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions – so this highly lauded “complete” set was not quite as complete as we were led to believe – plus jukebox 45 singles of ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’ coupled with ‘Spanish Theme’ – original copies of this are now highly sought after and can fetch in excess of £300 on the collectors market – and ‘Great Expectations’ coupled with ‘Little Blue Frog’, the latter in stereo and the former in mono. Finally the third CD features a previously unissued concert performance by the band recorded in Tanglewood in August 1970, the same month of Davis’ legendary Isle of Wight performance. The extant CD and DVD of the latter concert reveal the band to be on fire, and it is perhaps no surprise that is the case at Tanglewood, representing a major find from the Columbia vault.

Historically, it is great to have Bill Graham introducing the band since he was so influential in encouraging jazz musicians to embrace rock, booking them on to his egalitarian programmes at the Fillmore. On this concert, in contrast to the Copenhagen DVD, Davis is truly grappling with the electric zeitgeist. What is of interest is that the pieces are all pared down concert versions and make their point more dramatically through brevity, none more so than the title track, which on the LP is some 26 minutes in length but in this live performance is pared down to some nine and a half minutes. Equally, ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’ is just four minutes 39 seconds, and such is the quality of music this track seems to pass in a blink of an eye. Not included for review is a 5,000-word essay on the sessions by Greg Tate and what Columbia describe in their press release as “a tasteful memorabilia envelope” – it’s worth mentioning here that its equivalent in the Kind of Blue reissue was thoughtfully compiled, so hopefully this will be the case again.

It’s a presentation that does complete justice to the last classic album from jazz’s Golden Age. Yes, it comes with a bit of a price tag, but it is, after all, essential listening – besides, if the Kind of Blue set is anything to go by, it represents a shrewd investment. A Bitches Brew: Legacy Edition is also available that just includes the two Bitches Brew CDs mentioned above and the Copenhagen DVD at a more wallet friendly price.

– Stuart Nicholson

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