Saturday Night Tunes: Monk’s Music

1957’s Monk’s Music was recorded during the brief period after John Coltrane had left Miles Davis (partly because Davis had had enough of Coltrane’s heroin habit) and joined Monk for a stint at New York’s Five Spot Cafe. Very few studio recordings exist of Coltrane and Monk together, because the two of them were signed to separate labels and so appearing together on an album was contractually problematic to say the least. If you notice, for example, Coltrane’s name is nowhere to be found on the album cover up there, and in fact he’s only featured on two of the six tunes on the album. Coltrane rejoined Davis at the start of 1958, but his short time with Monk had a considerable influence in the development of Coltrane’s own sound and playing style.

One of the real pleasures of Monk’s Music is that Coltrane records alongside fellow tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, whose remarkable career stretched from the early 1920s through his death in 1969 and encompassed everything from the late hot jazz era through hard bop. Hawkins was one of Coltrane’s biggest influences, according to Coltrane himself, so it must have been something for the two of them to have been in the same studio together. In addition to these two, Monk is joined by Ray Copeland on trumpet, Gigi Gryce on alto saxophone, Wilbur Ware on bass, and the great Art Blakey on drums.

We start off with the unexpected: a horns-only arrangement of the 19th-century Christian hymn “Abide with Me (Eventide),” the only track on the album that Monk (obviously) didn’t write himself (though it was written by a Monk; English composer William Henry Monk’s “Eventide” is the tune to which Henry Francis Lyte‘s poem, “Abide with Me,” is set). Monk (Thelonious) apparently loved the hymn, so he produced this arrangement. It’s less than a minute long but it’s spectacular:

“Well You Needn’t” is a Monk standard that he first recorded in the early 1950s and that’s been covered innumerable times since then. This version is especially notable in that it’s one of the two tracks on the album where Monk lets everyone in the septet have a turn, Coltrane followed by Copeland, Ware, Blakey, Hawkins, and Gryce:

“Ruby, My Dear” features Hawkins, whose ability to make a ballad sing is almost unmatched in jazz history:

I love the melody of “Off Minor,” it just seems very “Monk” to me. Hawkins solos first, followed by Copeland and Monk:

“Epistrophy” is another Monk staple, which he wrote all the way back in 1941, and here it’s the second track on the album where the entire septet gets to have some fun: Coltrane, Copeland, Gryce, Ware, Blakey, Hawkins, and Monk himself:

The “Nellie” in “Crepuscule with Nellie” is Monk’s wife, and this one is completely composed (i.e., no improv). Monk alone plays the first half before the rest of the band joins him to restate the theme as an ensemble:

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