Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane: The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings Review

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Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane: <i>The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings</i> Review

The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings begin with a false start. No, literally, track one is called, “Monk’s Mood [false start].” But take a listen to the 20-song collection and you’ll find that’s the only one there is—metaphorically or otherwise.

The two jazz legends recorded a studio album simply titled Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane in 1957, featuring six songs all credited to Monk. Five of six of those (excluding Monk’s solo piece closing track, “Functional”) make it onto the Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings, alongside additional works including “Monk’s Mood,” “Crepuscule with Nellie,” “Blues for Tomorrow,” “Abide with Me” and “Well, You Needn’t.”

The fits, starts, breakdowns and final takes on this three-LP set were all culled from Monk and Coltrane’s residency at the New York City’s Five Spot Café between April and July of ‘57. Monk, the pianist, and Coltrane, the younger saxophonist learning from the not-that-much-older mentor, truly coalesce in these live cuts. The juxtaposition of Monk’s halting and hitting piano work and Coltrane’s smooth, bebop woodwind somehow creates a sanctified harmony.

Of the five songs that appear on both the eponymous album and this new collection, a couple in our own archives illustrate how special, if all-too-brief, that collaboration between these two musicians truly was. For his part, Monk proffered a take on “Nutty” with his quartet and guest clarinetist Pee Wee Russell during the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival. His sense of collaboration, as shown by the generous solos granted to other members, yields a recording that’s nearly twice the length of the bouncy, bassy version that appears on last side of the last Riverside Recordings LP.

Conversely, you can hear how sputtering and inward-seeking Coltrane’s playing sounds less than a decade later at the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival. But for the time they played together, captured and remastered from the original analog tapes so lovingly on this compilation, the two captured cool jazz on the cusp of wild change.

With the multiple takes, short versions and long, edited retakes and stereo releases, it can be difficult for fans who aren’t already experts to consume all this rich media. Luckily, the song-by-song liner notes penned by original producer, the late Orrin Keepnews, help contextualize the entire set. Additionally, the set’s gorgeous organization—from the crisp black, white, and red LP sleeves and essay booklet to the classified information-like accordion packaging—helps guide listeners and collectors through the annals of jazz history.

Ultimately, newer fans trying to understand the great jazz musicians should stick with the concise collection of Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane. But connoisseurs of the genre who want to light a candle (or two) for the legends, close their eyes, and let the sounds whisk them back to a sweaty Lower Manhattan club in 1957 should absolutely invest in this collection.