The Thelonious Monk Guide


Well, you needn’t get the four-disc Complete Blue Note Recordings or the 15-disc Complete Riverside Recordings. Yet with both, you’d have five versions of “Well, You Needn’t,” one of the signature tunes that earn Monk status as one of jazz’s greatest composers. Such investment pays dividends because alternate takes, illustrative but annoying in some other sets, consistently fascinate when it comes to Monk: they offer fine details about his simultaneous construction and deconstruction, his improvisation as composition (and vice versa). But the master takes, of songs early on and albums later, make complete statements—chapters in a relatively brief yet devastatingly powerful story that defines and transcends modern jazz.

Genius of Modern Music, Volume One*

[1947–48 (1989), Blue Note]

It would take another decade for the public and even the critical establishment to be won over by the magnitude of Monk’s music, but by 1947, many musicians knew. With “Thelonious,” Monk crafted something innovative and satisfying from just two notes. With “Ruby, My Dear,” “In Walked Bud,” and “Round Midnight,” the latter of which finds piano leading and horns comping, he codified nascent classics. Though his band concept would develop further, the essential elements—rhythmic displacements, startling silences, clotted chords, flat-fingered runs, and spiky dissonances—are all here.

Genius of Modern Music, Volume Two

[1947–52 (1989), Blue Note]

Vibraphonist Milt Jackson heightens the percussive potential, as Monk presents
even more radical tunes—”Misterioso,” “Epistrophy,” “Straight, No Chaser,” and the ingeniously accented “Criss- Cross.” With a few dozen tunes, jazz’s future was thrown gloriously askew.

Thelonious Monk Trio

[1954, OJC]

A trumped-up drug conviction and draconian cabaret laws would rob Monk of his ability to perform in New York for several years following the Blue Note sessions. Greater exposure through associations with Riverside and Columbia awaited. But Monk’s transitional dates for Prestige showcase brilliant work and continue his progress with a steady stream of memorable tunes, including “Little Rootie Tootie,” “Reflections,” and the audaciously loose-limbed “Bemsha Swing.”

Plays Duke Ellington

[1955, OJC]

When Monk began his long and fruitful association with Riverside, producer Orrin Keepnews steered him toward repertoire aimed at a broader audience. This all-Ellington program and the standards-based Unique Thelonious Monk lack the jolt of Monk’s originals. But Ellington is a touchstone for Monk, and this recording makes the debt concrete, especially when Monk moves from rubato mood to stride improvisation on “Solitude.”

Brilliant Corners

[1956, OJC]

The title track of this masterwork was so difficult to play, even for an all-star quintet featuring Sonny Rollins and Max Roach, that it was spliced from multiple takes. Yet its wild tempo changes and intervallic leaps sound organic. It would be hard to find more challenging writing and arranging for a quintet, yet the band swings relentlessly, even on the languorous “Pannonica,” with Monk playing both celeste and piano. A wake-up call to all who’d been sleeping on Monk’s brilliance or slow to follow him around the corner.

Thelonious Himself

[1957, OJC]

Solo Monk is one of life’s purest pleasures. Though this album ends with “Monk’s Mood” performed in trio (with John Coltrane and Wilbur Ware), the rest is a thrilling extended peek into the pianist’s machine. Compare these versions of “April in Paris” and “Round Midnight” to those on Monk’s early Blue Note sessions: his crushed chords and displaced rhythms embed even more deeply into each song’s structure.

Monk’s Music

[1957, OJC]

The presence of patriarch Coleman Hawkins and soon-to-be-saint Coltrane—their only session together —distinguishes this disc right off. A horn choir (Hawk, Trane, altoist Gigi Gryce, and trumpeter Ray Copeland) voices Monk’s arrangement of the spiritual “Abide With Me.” “Well, You Needn’t” is lodged deep in a groove mined by drummer Art Blakey and bassist Wilbur Ware. And Hawkins, alone with Monk’s trio, brings tenderness and swagger to “Ruby, My Dear.”

Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane: At Carnegie Hall*

[1957 (2005 ), Blue Note]

Until these pristine tapes surfaced at the Library of Congress, three tracks of Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane and the lo-fi pleasures of Live at the Five Spot: Discovery! were all we had from the ferocious quartet work Monk and Trane honed through a 1957 Five Spot residency. Monk had just regained his cabaret card and Trane had kicked a heroin habit. The two had been working together for four months by the time of this concert, which finds Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” style in crystallization, a superb complement to Monk’s angular melodies and jagged chord movements.


[1958, OJC]

Tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin’s hard-charging, chord-change-derived approach may not seem as well suited to Monk’s music as those of Coltrane or Charlie Rouse. But on these recordings, drawn from a gig at the Five Spot (also documented on OJC’s Thelonious in Action), Griffin takes harmonic chances that pay off, most profitably on “In Walked Bud.”

Thelonious Alone in San Francisco

[1959, OJC]

There’s less adventure here than on Thelonious Himself and more mood, as captured in an empty, cavernous Fugazi Hall.

Big Band and Quartet in Concert

[1963, Columbia]

Monk had shone with a tentet before, in 1959 at Town Hall, with arrangements by Hall Overton. This recording is even better. Beyond Monk’s neat interpretation of the 1930s pop song “(When It’s) Darkness on the Delta,” the real attractions are Overton’s six large-ensemble tracks, especially “Four in One.”


[1963, Columbia]

My friends prefer the pianist’s Columbia debut, Monk’s Dream, but I’ve always thought this a fine document of Monk’s long-running quartet with devoted tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist John Ore, and drummer Frankie Dunlop. By this time Monk is essentially mining his own songbook and introducing little new material. In so many small but significant ways, Rouse got Monk’s intent—dig the funny honks with which he punctuates “Hackensack.”

Live at the It Club: Complete

[1964 (1982), Columbia]

The CD reissue added three tracks and extended the nine others to their unedited length. The result is a faithful picture of the texture, pace, and ambience of Monk at his popular peak, in performance. Drummer Ben Riley lends a fresh yet well-meshed feel to the rhythms.

Solo Monk

[1964, Columbia]

You wouldn’t regret springing for the double-disc Monk Alone: The Complete Columbia Solo Studio Recordings, 1962–1968—there’s no such thing as too much solo Monk, and each take enlightens. But beginning with a stride-inflected take on “Dinah,” this album generates a life-affirming, start-to-finish joy and completeness of its own.


[1969, Columbia]

It’s best known for the Grammy- winning cover art—Monk at the piano surrounded by a basement full of French-resistance artifacts—but I bought it for a buck in college in a plain white album case. The LP was significant for its previously unrecorded tunes, such as “Ugly Beauty” and “Boo Boo’s Birthday.” The CD reissue, which dispenses with Teo Macero’s mastering and studio edits, elevates this to one of Monk’s best Columbia dates.

The London Collection, Volumes 1–3

[1971, Black Lion]

Monk’s final recordings—solo takes, and trio sessions with Blakey and bassist Al McKibbon—find him still toying inventively with his compositions, still radiating a singular joie de vivre. His music was always punctuated with silences; after this, until his death in 1982, the silence ruled.

Dud:Monk’s Blues

[1968, Columbia]

Oliver Nelson’s arrangements scrub the skronk out of Monk’s harmonies. And the pianist sounds less than pleased ruminating over two Teo Macero tunes.