Thelonious Monk – Complete Riverside Recordings (review)

Thelonious Monk – The Complete Riverside Recordings (Riverside) review

Grammy-award winning box set is finally available again

Few artists recorded a body of work for one label as important as Thelonious Monk did during his tenure at Riverside Records from 1955-1961. During this period, he went from relative unknown to jazz superstar under the tutelage of label founder Orrin Keepnews. The Complete Riverside Recordings was originally released back in 1986 on 22 LP’s and 15 CD’s. Garnering several Grammy’s, it’s now finally back in print in both disc and mp3 form.

153 performances, both studio and live, showcase this legendary artist in a dizzying array of settings. For his first two Riverside recordings, Keepnews smartly had Monk cover familiar material by Duke Ellington and others. This way, you could hum along with things like “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” while marveling at what Monk does between the choruses. Then, there’s Monk solo on albums like Thelonious Himself, where he sounds as if ideas are literally flooding from his brain.

There are times when certain pairings shouldn’t work, as in the teaming of laid-back saxophonist Gerry Mulligan on Mulligan Meets Monk. Yet, it is sweet perfection, as both legends blend seamlessly. There’s Monk’s stellar residence at The Five Spot Club in NYC, which yielded two of the greatest live jazz albums of all-time – Thelonious in Action and Misterioso.

By providing partial takes and flubs, there’s a surprisingly human element here. Hearing Monk struggle with his own composition, “Round Midnight,” is particularly interesting – you can hear him working things out as he goes along. The finished product is pure magic – a solo piano masterpiece.

The sidemen are stellar – from a very early John Coltrane, and swinging percussionist Art Blakey, to Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, and many others. Monk always managed to surround himself with the top guys in the trade.

As an added incentive to purchase the physical product, you get a comprehensive booklet which features session and biographical information, that help to put these important sides into perspective.

In the pantheon of jazz, there are few more important figures than Thelonious Monk. The Complete Riverside Recordings chronicles his most important works and is indispensable for avid fans of the genre. —Tony Peters