Monk & Trane at Carnegie Hall Found!
Ken Kase
11/28/2005 8:09:27 AM

"Throughout the entire disc, Coltrane's solemnity and fury contrasts with Monk's impish wit and relentless compositional logic to great effect. Monk lays down the riddles and Coltrane tirelessly tries to come up with answers. There is no phrase long enough, no bar expansive enough to contain Trane's quest for answers to Monk's posed musical problems."

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane
At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note/EMI)

Library of Congress Recorded Sound Reference Center

Ninety-fifty-seven was a pivotal year for both Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Monk had finally had his cabaret card reinstated by the New York City police department allowing him to perform in the city's clubs after a six year absence due to a trumped up drug charge. Coltrane, fresh from being sacked from the Miles Davis Quintet for his own drug habit, had undergone a spiritual transformation that manifested itself in a fierce determination to perfect his craft. His six month stint in Monk's quartet, though considered crucial to his development as the pre eminent tenor saxophone player, is woefully underdocumented. Aside from Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (Riverside/OJC) which features three tentative studio tracks and the bootleg-quality Discovery! Live at the Five Spot (Blue Note/EMI), there was no recording that authoritatively summed up this short but important period in jazz.

That is, until now.

On the evening of Friday, November 29, 1957, a benefit concert for the Morningside Community Center was held at New York's Carnegie Hall. Check out the bill: Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Chet Baker with Zoot Sims, Monk & Trane, and Sonny Rollins. A mere four bucks bought you the best seat in the house. The proceedings were recorded by the Voice of America, the Cold War-era radio station that propagandized behind the iron curtain. The recordings were boxed up and were eventually hauled to the Library of Congress who acquired the VOA tape library in 1963.

The music that makes up this release sat in a box marked "T. Monk Quartet" along with other reels of the evening's performances. Earlier this year, Larry Applebaum, the supervisor of the recording lab at the Library of Congress* placed the reel on the tape machine and realized that the tenor sax player was none other than John Coltrane. He had stumbled upon a beautifully recorded and wonderfully preserved piece of music history that was thought lost forever.

The performances captured here are startling, revealing the end days of a quartet that was clearly comfortable with Monk's challenging compositions and with each other. Coltrane especially, having forsaken drugs for a rigorous practice regimen of several hours per day, shows how much he had developed in such a short time. This release is truly one of the most important and enjoyable releases in all of jazz, foreshadowing Coltrane's further innovations and capturing four men operating on all cylinders.

The album's opener, "Monk's Mood", is largely a duet between Monk and Trane punctuated at times by bassist Ahmed Abdoul-Malik and drummer Shadow Wilson. This track best illustrates how intertwined these two great voices had become. Coltrane is a fitting voice for the pianist's idiosyncratic sound and their work on this ballad is genuinely moving.

Indeed, throughout the entire disc, Coltrane's solemnity and fury contrasts with Monk's impish wit and relentless compositional logic to great effect. Monk lays down the riddles and Coltrane tirelessly tries to come up with answers. There is no phrase long enough, no bar expansive enough to contain Trane's quest for answers to Monk's posed musical problems.

On "Evidence", the band truly swings and the roar of Coltrane is first heard with successive measures of highly condensed, flowing flourishes of notes that mark the early presence of his trademark "sheets of sound". The song can barely contain him and his solo is followed by Monk's typically jaunty, angular piano. "Crepuscule With Nellie" is largely a showcase for Monk with Coltrane following close behind in stating the melody under Monk's embellishments. The mid-tempo "Nutty" finds Coltrane becoming more comfortable as his soloing becomes denser, overflowing with ideas. Monk even lays out now and then, content to let Trane stroll and explore the harmonic possibilities of the tune with Abdul-Malik and Wilson providing a steady pulse. The early set ends with "Epistrophy" which features some very syncopated cymbal figures from Shadow Wilson. Coltrane turns in yet another searching solo that pounces on and discards many harmonic possibilities within the gut-bucket atmosphere of the well-known song.

The second set, though abridged (the tape apparently ran out during the second performance of "Epistrophy"), raises the stakes even more. On "Bye-Ya", Coltrane turns in an impressive extended statement, but "Sweet and Lovely" is the real gem here. This rendering of the old standard masquerades as a slow ballad for nearly five minutes as Coltrane's improvisations become increasingly more restless and probing until the entire quartet, stopping on a dime, suddenly ups the tempo considerably, giving Coltrane more room to stretch out his ideas. It is a surprising moment that shakes the listener from dreamy complacency and places the listener on a freeway going 70 miles an hour. A truly thrilling moment.

"Blue Monk" and the shortened version of "Epistrophy" showcase some ideas and phrases that would pop up in Coltrane's work the following year, thus making this release a bridge between the end of the Miles Davis Quintet and the beginning of his sextet about a month after this concert was recorded. Coltrane's excursions into deep study of harmonics would serve him well as Davis ushered in his modal innovations in 1958-59. In the remaining ten years of his life, Coltrane's approach and sound would change several times in his relentless musical and spiritual quest. Monk would go on to work with Johnny Griffin and eventually Charlie Rouse on tenor sax and would follow essentially the same path until his retirement in the seventies. But for one brief shining moment, these two giants found common ground and helped each other through what turned out to be mutually crucial transitional periods.

After forty-eight years, now we can experience that moment for ourselves.

*Looking for something to be happy about? Here's an example of your tax dollars at work that isn't just a waste of time and money. The Library of Congress has been actively engaged in preserving our American cultural heritage through the restoration of audio recordings and film. Without this government project, this album would never have surfaced. These people do good work in preserving our cultural artifacts for future generations to enjoy. You might want to visit their website: Library of Congress Recorded Sound Reference Center.

The Voice of America recorded scores of jazz concerts for broadcast, ostensibly to undermine the stranglehold of totalitarianism. Their body of work has been invaluable to musical scholars and to the public alike, yielding an ever-growing number of commercially available historic performances. It seems odd that the Cold War propaganda machine so prevalent in the fifties would use its most derided and disenfranchised citizens (African Americans) as ambassadors of American culture to those who lived behind the Iron Curtain, but it seems a fitting irony that the acrimony between nations and ideologies should lead to well preserved, time capsule-worthy artifacts of our nation's robust musical heritage. --Ed.


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