Wednesday, February 17, 2010

February 17: Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane, "Off Minor"

Artist: Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane
Song; "Off Minor"
Album: Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane/The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings
Year: 1957 (recorded)/1961/2006 (released)

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Easily one of the most frustrating aspects of music is that in most cases, it is nearly impossible to accurately trace the musical roots of some of the most important artists. Especially in jazz, until around the mid-1960's, one cannot find recordings of these important artists until they had already become famous. Somewhat due to the realities of technology, as well as the fact that until the "LP era," musicians were more likely to only record a side or two as opposed to an entire album, many of the early works of those that shaped modern music will never be heard. Yet it is also within the jazz genre that some of this is overcome by the fact that throughout the 1950's, there were brief band lineups that featured memberships that remain the epitome of the word "unbelievable." Easily making it onto this list, if not topping the list was the band that was assembled in 1957 by piano genius, Thelonious Monk. Having taken up a six-month residency at New York's legendary Five Spot, Monk was able to attract some of the finest musicians in the land, perhaps the most famous of which was none other than John Coltrane. Making a handful of recordings on both quartet and octet formats, one not only gets to hear one of the finest pairings in music history, but one is also afforded a rare glimpse into Coltrane developing a number of different aspects of his sound. Easily one of the most stunning recordings to come out of these sessions is when the octet forever changed the music world with their amazing rendition of Monk's composition, "Off Minor."

One of the main reasons why so little of this sensational grouping was recorded was due to a number of contractual issues, as at the time, Coltrane was a part of Miles Davis' sextet, and was signed to Prestige Records, making other sessions nearly impossible. Two live recordings led by the Monk/Coltrane pairing have emerged over the past two decades, and these make it even more frustrating that more was not recorded, as the two clearly shared a chemistry unlike that of any other musical duo in history. Throughout all of the recordings, and featured very prominently on "Off Minor," one can hear Coltrane beginning to experiment with his "sheets of sound" that he would perfect years later, as well as being treated to a wonderful display of matched syncopation between Coltrane and Monk. The other extremely unique aspect of these recordings is the fact that, in many places, Coltrane seems to find himself in a strange improvisational place which seems to have no musical escape. Yet it is the fact that he somehow turns these moments around and makes them work within the larger picture that serves as an early sign of his fearless experimentation that would emerge years later. Yet there is clearly a second (and actually third) saxophone on "Off Minor," and it belongs to none other than Coleman Hawkins. In many ways, it is the playing of Hawkins that keeps the song "balanced," as he is able to bring both Monk and Coltrane back from their solos, as well as providing the amazing "swing" that runs throughout the song. The true greatness of both Coltrane and Hawkins is clear on this track, as they both generously lend to the other in terms of both space and musical ideas, and it enables the overall track to rise beyond that of nearly any other jazz recording in history.

While Coltrane and Hawkins are nothing short of phenomenal throughout the entire recording session, there is rarely a moment when it is not clear that these recordings are all being led by Monk himself. All but one track are Monk originals, and "Off Minor" remains unquestionably one of the finest compositions of his career. At many points, Monk seems to be playing in a style that is beyond eccentric, almost off-kilter, and yet he somehow makes this seemingly chaotic sound fit perfectly with the piece. While many see this version of "Off Minor" as an "alternate take" of the version found on Monk's Music, the fact of the matter is, the sharp outbursts and more contrasting sounds between Monk and the horn sections make it a far more exciting version, and the band was clearly more in sync on this take. Brilliantly trading licks and lines with his sax players, Monk is in rare form as he seamlessly moves in and around the main musical phrasing, and the overall chemistry of the group is truly like nothing else ever recorded. Yet this is a bit less surprising when one looks at the rest of the group that Monk had assembled, as these sessions prove to be one of the "all star" lineups of all time. The amazing, almost swinging beat that runs throughout the song comes courtesy of none other than Art Blakey, and longtime Monk bassist, Wilbur Ware fills the other half of the rhythm section. With Ray Copeland on trumpet and the third saxophone of Gigi Gryce, there are few lineups anywhere in music history that even come close to the pure talent here, and the fact that this group easily surpasses their potential is what makes these sessions so special.

With so many amazing musicians emerging throughout the 1950's, finding the best of the best was a hard enough task for any band leader. Even more difficult was getting all of these players into the same city, and then finding a way to negotiate with the different record labels so that the group could record as a single unit. These hurdles surely prevented a number of amazing lineups from making formal recordings, though history has given the world a fair number of studio sessions that feature lineups that are truly mind-boggling. The fact that in 1957, Thelonious Monk was able to get BOTH John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins in the same studio should have been enough for any band leader. Yet the fact that he also added Art Blakey, as well as his own musical contributions make this musical grouping quickly rise to the top of "best ever" lists, and the music they created remains some of the most important and stunning work in history. The interplay between Monk and Coltrane is absolutely mesmerizing, and it is these sessions that offers one of the earliest and most unique glimpses into the development of Coltrane's sound. Monk himself has rarely sounded better, and it is clear that throughout every track, the musicians are pushing one another to greater heights, and in the process creating some of the most awe-inspiring music that the world has ever heard. Easily one of the highlights of these sessions, as well as jazz as a whole, comes in the form of the "alternate" take of "Off Minor," and the interplay between the musicians remains the high-water mark for the genre, and the song is just as stunning today as it was more than five decades ago.

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