Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington was designed to get people who thought of Monk and his music as ‘difficult’ and ‘weird’ (and there were already plenty of them in 1955), to give him a listen from a different perspective. Many years and recordings later, we are perhaps more used to listening to and thinking of Monk as a pianist of considerable talent, although I would argue that there are still far too many who consider him to be a somewhat limited pianist. This 24-bit remastered reissue of a unique and stunning album from the Monk discography should go a long way towards fixing that perception.
Monk seems very relaxed and affable at the keyboard here, swinging fiercely and demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz piano styles. Accompanied by bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Kenny Clarke, he moves with ease through Ellington’s compositions. His work is spare, devoid of unnecessary ornamentation, but there are flashes of technical ebullience and the typical Monk humor. While he’s very lyrical on most of this album, he does find some harmonically interesting ways of dressing up some of the familiar compositions—two examples being “Mood Indigo” and “Caravan.”
Keepnews and his partner, Bill Grauer, wanted to get people to hear Monk as a pianist and as a jazz musician whose place in the long line of jazz history was clear from listening to him play. They felt that, in order to do this, it would be best to present him, initially, in a trio setting, with no horns and no original compositions. Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington and its followup, The Unique Thelonious Monk certainly gave Keepnews valuable experience in working and dealing with a musician as unique as Monk, and by the time Brilliant Corners, Monk’s third Riverside release, was recorded, the relationship (which proved to be a long one) was already on solid ground.
No period in Monk’s recorded history was more amazing and showed greater development than his time with Riverside. By comparison, his work for Blue Note is a mere warm-up, and his Columbia years, while often rewarding, have the feel of an established musician honing his work to obtain the best possible performances to bequeath to future generations. Thelonious Monk Play Duke Ellington, then, stands as one of Monk’s (admittedly many) best recordings, and its latest incarnation in the Keepnews Collection ensures that it will continue to be heard by an avid and interested audience in the digital age.