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At Carnegie Hall by Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane

Everything you’ve heard about this treasure is true. Representing the only live documented performance of the two jazz legends together, it is nothing less than the find of the year. Indeed, it qualifies as one of the most important recordings in all of the jazz canon, not just by virtue of it being unearthed half a century after the performance, but by the brilliance of the performances, apparent still.

Recorded November 29, 1957, this historic Carnegie Hall recording has, amazingly, never before seen the light of day. That it didn’t continue to linger in tape purgatory was a bit of great luck. Recorded for Voice of America, it was filed away for later broadcast and then just .... lost! Discovered in January 2005 in an unlabeled can by Larry Applebaum, an archivist at the Library of Congress, the recordings are as important a find as any Indiana Jones treasure.

Monk and Trane were both in transitory and enormously creative periods in their respective careers at the time of these performances. Coltrane had just come back from kicking a heroin habit and Monk, who had been labeled as and fought the tag of an eccentric, was finally beginning to be accorded the respect that his brilliant compositions and performances warranted. He had also, significantly, won back his cabaret card, the absence of which forbade him to perform in the New York jazz clubs for a few years up until this time. To celebrate, he took a quartet into the Five Spot just a few months previously, which included Coltrane, who had just released Blue Train. By the time of this important date, they had a few months of steady performance under their belts. As evidenced by the nine compositions captured here, that translated into a meshing of ideas and mesmerizing chops that was the epitome of the growth spurt and adventurous direction in which jazz then found itself.

From the reception that the group, which included Shadow Wilson on drums and Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, received this post-Thanksgiving weekend, it was clear that the concert was a highly anticipated and enthusiastically received event. The all Monk program of "Monk’s Mood," "Evidence," "Crepuscule with Nellie," "Nutty," "Epistrophy," "Bye-Ya," "Sweet and Lovely," "Blue Monk" and a reprise of "Epistrophy" was far from rote. Trane played alternately with fire and introspection, often as if just discovering the possibilities of the notes and the significance of their place in the scale. Monk, for his part, brought the same sense of wonder to the keyboard, with ploddingly placed notes here and dancing runs down the keys there.

The version of "Nutty," throughout which the audience demonstrated their glee, showcases the players as well as the machine-like fluidity of the band. Trane and Monk were the stars, but certainly not the only players of note. The rhythm section was strong and supportive throughout.

For "Bye-Ya," Monk and Coltrane took turns offering an underlayment for each other. Monk is clever and playful under Trane’s muscular and inventive soaring overhead, and then roles reverse as Thelonious takes a ponderous and playful turn over the lively rhythm team before Coltrane returns to join the pianist in delightful tandem work. "Sweet and Lovely" is both of those, with Coltrane playing a descending pattern imbued with classic Monkisms. The kick in at the bridge is a toe tapper that sizzles. The program that evening became progressively more fiery and Coltrane’s solo in this middle section got the audience’s attention. It is Coltrane’s solo work that drives "Blue Monk," as well, and it is his solo that takes the program out on a maddeningly incomplete second run at "Epistrophy," on which the tape apparently ran out.

Produced by T.S. Monk and Michael Cuscuna for Thelonious Records, this is not merely the most important jazz release of the year, but half a century after the fact it impresses as one of the most impressive and wholly realized.

The concert at Carnegie was a benefit for the Morningside Community Center in Harlem. Sharing the bill that night was Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Chet Baker and Zoot Sims, and Sonny Rollins. Whether any of those performances were likewise discovered remains a mystery to this writer. What a concert that must have been! What an extraordinary piece the Monk Quartet performance was and how divinely amazing it is to be able to hear it now for the first time.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane
  • CD Title: At Carnegie Hall
  • Genre: BeBop / Hard Bop
  • Year Released: 2005
  • Record Label: Blue Note
  • Rating: Five Stars
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