The Thelonious Monk Quartet: The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection

In a sense, I understand why Thelonious Monk's albums on Columbia, recorded between 1962 and 1968, have been neglected. His earlier sessions, on Blue Note, Prestige, and Riverside, were the ones where he introduced his classic songs, developed his eccentric style, and played with star-studded rhythm sections. The six quartet albums for Columbia feature a total of just six new Monk songs. And they find him playing with a working band of accompanists—no John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Griffin, Art Blakey, or Roy Haynes here.

Yet the Columbias—Monk's Dream, Criss-Cross, It's Monk's Time, Monk, Straight No Chaser, and Underground—are shamefully underrated, and the proof is in Sony's new six-CD boxed set from Sony, The Thelonious Monk Quartet: The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection.

Those six new tunes on these albums—"Green Chimneys," "Ugly Beauty," "Bright Mississippi," "Raise Four," "Boo Boo's Birthday," and "Teo"—are some of his most brilliant (when most inventive jazz pianists call out a Monk tune, it's usually one of these, not "Round Midnight" or "Well You Needn't"). The familiar tunes, whether Monk originals or standards, are given all-new workouts. And as for his band, while Charlie Rouse, Monk's constant tenor saxophonist in those years, was no Coltrane or Hawkins, his plangent tone and seamless fluidity made him Monk's ideal bandmate.

The Columbia band (which also included John Ore, Butch Warren, or Larry Gales on bass; Frankie Dunlop or Ben Riley on drums) gave Monk the air he needed. The other bands had a Monk-Coltrane sound or a Monk-Griffin sound; and hey, there's nothing wrong with that. But the Columbia band had what we now recognize as "the Monk sound."

It's more puzzling still why the audiophile labels have ignored the Monk Columbias. Analogue Productions put out all the Riversides on vinyl; ORG recently remastered the three late Black Lion albums. But as far as I can tell, none of the 'philes have done their magic with any of the Columbias. Is it because some of the original pressings didn't sound that great? (Columbia started going downhill in the mid-1960s, in part because producer Teo Maceo mucked with the EQ on the production masters.)

If so, Analogue and the others should reassess. Ten years ago, Columbia Legacy reissued these albums on CD, drawing on the original master tapes (untampered and unedited by Maceo), and they sounded very good. I have an original (black-print 360 Stereo) LP of the earliest of these albums, Monk's Dream, and it sounds superb.

The discs in the new boxed set are exactly the same as those in the 2002-03 reissues (which were mastered by Mark Wilder and Seth Foster). That is, they all sound very good, and there's not a disappointing album, musically, in the bunch.

Something else worth noting: the booklet in this boxed set identifies—for the first time—the engineers for these albums. Most of them were recorded, it turns out, by Fred Plaut, who also miked Masterpieces by Ellington and Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, among other jaw-droppers. (Columbia never credited its engineers; that's one reason Fred Plaut is not as venerated as Rudy Van Gelder.)

Oh, and one more thing: while we're waiting for the 45rpm vinyl reissues of these albums, which will sell for $50 per title, the Sony boxed-set—all six albums—retails for $39.95. It's a bargain.

George Crater's picture

Charlie Rouse played tenor, not alto.

Does this set include the quartet tracks from Always Know?

Donnn's picture

George Crater, that is. Downbeat humorist, WNCN radio jazz deejay, all around hipster. Passed way too soon. Good to see that name in lights again.

Fred Kaplan's picture

George - Of course, you're right, Rouse played tenor. A thoughtless mistake on my part to say otherwise. The correction has been made. As for your question, yes the "Always Know" tracks are included, as they were in the 2002-03 reissues. Thanks...Fred