Monday, November 14, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #10

Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane
Live at Carnegie Hall

Every so often, you read about an unknown work by a famous painter being discovered in a yard sale or someone's attic. This past February, Larry Appelbaum was thumbing through old tape recordings in the Library of Congress, preparing them to be digitized when he made a startling discovery: a previously unknown recording featuring John Coltrane playing together with Thelonious Monk in Carnegie Hall.

You have to understand the significance of this event. Monk and Coltrane are two of the most revered jazz musicians in history. They redefined the art form in specific ways; each was unique, and both developed into unlikely geniuses who had profound influence on their peers and successors. And 1957 marked a significant year for both men: Monk returned to performing after the reinstatement of his cabaret card and began to catch the attention of mainstream audiences; and after being kicked out of Miles Davis's band in April, Coltrane went home to Philadelphia and kicked his heroin addiction cold turkey. He never used drugs again.

Upon his return to New York, Coltrane joined Monk's quartet for five months, during which they recorded only once, resulting in only three tracks. The sole exception (until this year) was a scratchy, hissing, low-fidelity recording made by Coltrane's wife, who set up a handheld tape recorder on her table one night at the Five Spot. Because of its significance, that tape became legendary as documentation of a pivotal stage in both men's careers; but jazz historians have always lamented the neglect to seriously record this quartet.

So this discovery constituted a seismic event in jazz. It was rushed through production; and eight months after its discovery, the concert was issued on CD. It is the newest "must-own" for jazz fans, a CD you'll probably find on every shelf. The substance of the music is almost an asterisk to this story; everyone would buy it, even if it weren't any good.

For the record, it is good. I'll split from most critics and confess that I prefer the old Five Spot recording; jazz flourishes in small clubs, and that late summer recording represents a less polished band than you hear in November. ("Less polished" meaning you can better hear the pair trying to acclimate to each other.) But this is a great concert filled with wit and humor; you can tell these guys enjoyed the evening, and they gave the audience their money's worth. You'll enjoy every moment, right up until the final track — which ends abruptly as the tape runs out.

Live at Carnegie Hall: Monk's Mood; Evidence; Crepuscule with Nellie; Nutty; Epistrophy; Bye-Ya; Sweet and Lovely; Blue Monk; Eistrophy.
Personnel: John Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Thelonious Monk, piano; Ahmed Abdul-Malik, bass; Shadow Wilson, drums.


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