By 1957, Thelonious Monk had been on the jazz scene for more than a decade, but his genius wasn’t yet recognized by much of the listening public. His compositions had found favor with other musicians, and he’d gained some notice as a sideman, but his unique style – both as a musician and as a person – obscured the depth of his invention. Having signed to Riverside in 1955 he recorded standards, Duke Ellington covers, and a widely recognized album of originals, Brilliant Corners, but it was this 1957 session that really solidified public opinion in his favor. Working with a septet that included both Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane on tenor sax, you could hear history’s page turning between the former’s warm-toned balladry on “Ruby, My Dear” and the latter’s modern improvisation. Coltrane was also just emerging as a star, having established himself with Miles Davis, and having led his first session the previous month.
The septet was anchored by the steady swing of Art Blakey and Wilbur Ware, and the horn section is filled out by Ray Copeland on trumpet and Gigi Gryce on alto saxophone. The four-horn lineup creates more solo variations; when playing as a section they could sound orchestral, or with Monk and Blakey pushing the rhythm, like the front-line of a big band. The selections mostly revisit tunes from Monk’s catalog, giving the pianist an opportunity to rethink his compositions, and the band an opportunity to create new interpretations that, in a few cases (such as “Ruby, My Dear”), might be considered definitive. The album’s one new composition is “Crepuscule with Nellie,” a song written by Monk for his wife, and the source of some frustration in the studio; the album’s original take is complemented here with an alternate that edits together pieces of two other takes. Alternates of “Off Minor” and a studio blues jam are also included. OJC’s 2011 reissue features a new 24-bit remaster by Joe Tarntino, new liner notes by Ashley Kahn, and the album’s original liner notes by session producer Orrin Keepnews. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]