While few would even consider arguing the relative importance of the musical genius of Thelonious Monk and his impact on generations of subsequent composers and pianists, dissent can sometimes by heard when considering Monk’s recorded oeuvre which spanned many decades and is documented by several labels. While his Riverside years are universally hailed as the period of greatest artistic growth and integrity, his subsequent stay at Columbia found him producing music that many critics felt was somehow inferior by comparison and less inspired. A closer look, however, will reveal quite the contrary when taking Monk’s Columbia catalog as a whole, not to mention that the pianist led one his most gifted quartets at the time including Charlie Rouse and Ben Riley.
As Monk’s former producer at Riverside, Orrin Keepnews found himself in a unique position as the main force behind Thelonious Monk: The Columbia Years '62-'68 (Columbia/Legacy 64887), a new three-disc compilation that liberally samples some of the finer moments to be heard during Monk’s stay at Columbia. Sagaciously arranged by ensemble type, disc one features quartet and trio recitals, disc two focuses on big band, solo, and live tracks, and the third disc continues with more live performances. The sheer variety of formats that Monk utilized should alone have quelled the notion that he was merely revisiting prior glories, not to mention the creative energy that remains palpable throughout this cross section of Monkonian masterpieces.
Not content to simply pick and chose from familiar items, Keepnews decided to dig a little deeper in putting together this package. Among the 31 tracks collected, six are heard for the first time ever and another three are restored to their full length after being initially issued in truncated form. The entire set has been newly remixed and remastered and includes an eye-catching booklet with many session photos and track-by-track commentary by Peter Keepnews. Even those with the lion’s share of this material already a part of their collections will find this set a worthy addition and for neophytes nothing more needs to be said aside from stating that this one comes highly recommended.
While there are still a number of Monk’s Columbia studio dates that have yet to be reissued domestically (hey, Legacy guys, how about bringing out It's Monk's Time?), two recent sets gather for the first time in the United States some of the best live material from this period. Monk In Tokyo (Columbia/Legacy 63538) contains performances from 1963 that were issued posthumously on LP back in the early ‘80s. This two-disc set is heard in the finest fidelity and a swathe of eleven Monk classics are laid out by a quartet that includes Charlie Rouse, Butch Warren, and Frankie Dunlap. At a time when some critics were suggesting that Monk was merely phoning in his live performances, these charged improvisations show the pianist and his cohorts to be at a creative peak, clearly inspired by their gracious audience.
In 1982, a two-album set presented for the first time a collection of 1964 live performances that Monk and his quartet presented at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop. Little did anyone know at that point that the compilation would only be scratching the surface, the true mother lode being exposed only now via the release of Live at the Jazz Workshop Complete (Columbia/Legacy 65189). Two and a half hours worth of music includes a baker’s dozen of cuts never before heard and another three that are restored to their original length. While the sound quality may not quite come up to the high standard set by the Tokyo performances, the music is no less inspired and we get to hear how Monk would develop and vary his improvisations each night with multiple takes on "Bright Mississippi," "Epistrophy," "Hackensack," and ‘’Round Midnight."