Music Reviews

Thelonious Monk

Monk In Paris: Live At The Olympia


Thelonious Monk (a melodious thunk). That’s what I think whenever I see his name, ever since I heard “Jazz Thing” by Gang Starr on the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues. The nickname predates the record, but that’s where I first heard it.

All this by way of introduction to Monk in Paris: Live At The Olympia. What a piece of work was Monk, how infinite in faculties and in form. I enjoy him most on the solo piano recordings he made: the album Thelonious Himself on Riverside in 1957, select tracks for Columbia in the ’60s. No matter how fine the band behind him – and a band like Larry Gales (bass), Ben Riley (drums) and Charles Rouse (tenor sax), as here, is very fine – it still puts a distance between Monk’s pieces and the piece of land inside my mind.

A Monk piece never seems to relax, to settle into the warm ripples that almost everybody else played at some time or another. Jagged glaciers of beauty, that’s what I call it. It’s music of the mind, as close as we are ever likely to get to being able to chart another person’s thinking process. Writing won’t do, because once we’ve formulated a thought enough to set it down, we’ve bagged and tagged it, and though words are very necessary, despite what Depeche Mode thinks, music is wide open spaces filled by blocks of thought.

So I’m much more satisfied by the brief, too-brief, solo interpretations of “April In Paris” and “Body & Soul” on this album than the full-group renditions that surround them. When I wanna hear Monk, I wanna hear Monk, not Monk filtered through Rouse.

But that’s me. Perhaps two percent of Monk’s recorded output was solo, and that hasn’t seemed to affect his acclaim as an Important Genius, so I do not doubt that this collection will find favor with Monk fans. The concert (from 1965) is well recorded, the performances are radiant and most of the titles are familiar. But for the record I find a performance by the same group two years after, released by Le Jazz as The Paris Concert, to be even more impressive.

Liner notes are in the way of an interview with T.S. Monk on “The Two Monks” and being his father’s son, and an essay by Nat Hentoff. Also included with the album is a DVD of the group’s impressive performance in Oslo the next year.

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