Jazz legends Coltrane and Monk exchange lively dialogue at Carnegie Hall

By Eric Benson

Jazz, like all art forms that become institutionalized, is always at risk of being engulfed by its own history. I know people who consider themselves jazz fans, but whose knowledge of the music abruptly stops around 1965. This phenomenon is not caused by any disdain for the current scene, but rather is a reflection of the dominant attitude toward the music, which places far more weight on figures past than it does on the vibrant present. Many record companies support the relatively meager sales of their current jazz artists by reissuing and repackaging previously released material from an early era. Just when you think you have the definitive edition of a classic album recorded over fifty years ago, the “remastered definitive edition” enters the marketplace, compelling jazz fans everywhere to clamor for five more alternate takes that the artists never intended anyone outside of the recording studio to hear.

Occasionally though, this constant mining of the past unearths tremendously worthy performances that for reasons financial, artistic, or merely accidental, were not previously released. In 2003, Blue Note uncovered a forgotten 1969 Andrew Hill studio session and brought it to life as Passing Ships, a compelling and worthy addition to Hill’s recorded cannon. While Passing Ships was greeted with widespread critical acclaim, like all Hill’s albums it is something of a niche item. Not so with this year’s great jazz archeological find, Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, a long-lost recording that documents the brief-but-fertile association of the music’s high priest with one of its unquestioned deities.

The Monk-Coltrane quartet is legendary not only because it is the fleeting creative union of two of the most important and unique figures in jazz, but as a crucial formative period in the career of John Coltrane. Coltrane had been playing with Miles Davis’s quintet throughout the mid-1950s, but he was fired in the spring of 1957 as he plunged deeper into heroin addiction. Thelonious Monk’s quartet provided a refuge for Coltrane, allowing him to overcome his addiction and to focus on his music from a newly sober perspective. Up until now, documentation of the quartet has been extremely sparse, confined to three studio tracks (released on the similarly titled Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane) and a poor-fidelity, although musically rich, live recording made by John Coltrane’s wife (released as Live at the Five Spot—Discovery!). Thus, Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall is the first full-length, professionally recorded album to capture the quartet in all of its fleeting splendor.

The circumstances surrounding the discovery of the recording have already acquired the sheen of myth. Larry Appelbaum, the recording lab supervisor at the Library of Congress, was digitally transferring their archival collections when he stumbled upon a set of tapes labeled “11/29/57 jazz concert (#1)” and one especially suspicious tape labeled “T.Monk.” Eight months later, Blue Note is rolling out all the stops for what will likely be their best-selling jazz album of the year.

The listener’s experience is informed by the history and serendiptious discovery of the album, but the music is powerful enough to stand on its own. On the Monk-Coltrane studio recordings from the spring of 1957, Coltrane, newly introduced to the rigors of Monk’s music, seems reserved, typically deferring to Monk’s direction. At the Carnegie Hall concert, however, we hear a very different John Coltrane. From his entrance in “Monk’s Mood” onward, one can hear the growth that the saxophonist underwent during his productive half-year tenure with Monk. When Coltrane enters, he is shaping the music. During the initial chorus of Coltrane’s entrance, Monk, in a rare show of musical deference, submerges his personality to that of his masterful collaborator. After allowing Coltrane to bask in the spotlight, the two men enter into an extended dialogue which, while spoken in Monk’s language, is inflected with Coltrane’s fiery dialect.

“Monk’s Mood” may be the most startling track on the album—after all, it is the first—but the musical relationship introduced on it runs throughout the entire disc. “Blue Monk” stands out especially as one of the finer versions of Monk’s well-trodden blues, as an eager Coltrane toys with the melody from the first note onward before flying through a series of ever more intense improvised choruses.

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall is not the definitive record of either man. Each has been more daring, more original, and more assured on a number of other records. Yet this album is the definitive record of their collaboration, documenting a partnership that changed the ways in which two of jazz music’s greatest innovators approached their art.