Monday, December 26, 2005

The Kiko's House Album of the Year

There was a surfeit of really good music this year. Albums from My Morning Jacket, Coldplay, Shemekia Copeland, Sufjan Stevens, Son Volt, Neil Young, Robert Plant (yes, that Robert Plant), Sinead O'Connor and Marah come to mind.

But how about really great music?

The hands-down winner and the Kiko's House Album of the Year is a long forgotten recording nearly 50 years old that features two jazz greats of the first water -- Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane.

The story behind Thelonius Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Live) on Blue Note is nearly as extraordinary as the album's nine tracks.

It was common knowledge that Monk and Coltrane had played together for a five-month period in 1957, but widely assumed that no recordings existed beyond a low-fi set from the Five Spot Cafe released by Riverside in 1958, as well as a crude bootleg or two. But there was, in fact, an exquisitely recorded reel from a November 29, 1957, Carnegie Hall all-star benefit concert that included two sets by Monk and his Quartet and Coltrane that was broadcast overseas by the Voice of America. (
Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra, Sonny Rollins and Ray Charles also appeared on the bill.)

Long forgotten, the Monk-Coltrane master reel was accidentally discovered in an unmarked box by a Library of Congress sound engineer in January, remastered and released to an astonished jazz world in September.

Astonishing is not the half of it.

The chemistry between Monk and his Quartet and Coltrane is extraordinary. Coltrane's heroin addiction had gotten him fired from Miles Davis' band, but he had cleaned up and was invited by Monk to study and play with him.

The effect of playing Monk's compositions was liberating for Coltrane. His phrasing as both accompaniest and soloist is incredible on this album, and even after repeated listenings I find myself shouting "yeah, yeah" to passages on several cuts, notably the Monk classics "Epistrophy" and "Monk's Moods," as well as the standard, "Sweet and Lovely."

Coltrane's solo career did not really kick in until three years later, and his short but prolific career ended with his death in 1967. Monk, of course, was a master in his own right and I do not want to suggest that Trane's brilliant playing this particular evening drove Monk to new heights. I will defer to people better listened than myself to validate so bold an assessment. But to my ears the pianist and saxophonist take each other to extraordinary levels, and some of Coltrane's string-of-consciousness riffs are jaw dropping.

"You know, anybody can play a composition and use far-out chords and make it sound wrong," Monk remarked a few years later. "It's making it right that's not easy."

Beautifully said, and the right righteousness of the playing on Thelonius Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall is a stunning testament to that notion.

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