Recording of October 2005: At Carnegie Hall

John Coltrane, tenor sax; Thelonious Monk, piano; Ahmed Abdul-Malik, bass; Shadow Wilson, drums
Thelonious/Blue Note 35173 (CD). 2005. Michael Cuscuna, T.S. Monk, prods.; unknown eng. AAD. TT: 51:36
Performance *****
Sonics ***

The written history of jazz is founded on iconic recordings, and the oral history is full of legendary gigs. The Five Spot, a smoky little dive at 5 Cooper Square in what is now called the East Village, was, between 1956 and 1962, the site of more than its share of historic engagements. From there, Ornette Coleman introduced New York to free jazz in 1959. Eric Dolphy had a famous week at the club in 1961 with Booker Little, shortly before both went to early graves. Perhaps the most fabled engagement in jazz history was the five-month run in the summer and fall of 1957 when John Coltrane played the Five Spot with Thelonious Monk's Quartet.

It was almost half a century ago, and we will never know if all the stories about that gig are true. Were there really lines around the block every night? Was everyone who was anyone hip in New York really there? (The club had a 150-person capacity, after all.) What is known is that the Five Spot gig came at a critical moment in the careers of both Monk and Coltrane. Monk had just regained his New York cabaret card, and Coltrane had just relinquished his heroin addiction. What has also been known, based on two tiny scraps of recorded evidence, is that their five-month musical marriage was magical.

Exactly three studio tracks of the Monk Quartet with Coltrane appeared on the Jazzland label in 1957. In 1993, Blue Note released five tracks recorded by Coltrane's wife, Naima, on a portable tape recorder with a single microphone (Live at the Five Spot: Discovery!). Liner-note author and Coltrane scholar Lewis Porter assumed that this material came from the 1957 gig. It now seems certain that it came from September 1958, many months after Coltrane had left the band, when he sat in with Monk for one night. The aura of legend surrounding the Quartet justified Blue Note's decision to release live material of truly abysmal sound quality, because it was all there was.

Until now. Suddenly, astoundingly, there is a new Monk-Coltrane record. The hero of the story is Larry Appelbaum, senior studio engineer at the Library of Congress. During a routine archival process of making digital transfers from the Library's Voice of America collection, Appelbaum came across eight cardboard boxes. One was marked in pencil, "sp. Event 11/29/57 carnegie jazz concert (#1)." Another box was marked "T. Monk." Appelbaum, who is also a respected jazz journalist, played the first 7½" reel and says that his heart "began to race."

Toward the end of their long Five Spot run, Monk and Coltrane played a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall that was recorded by Voice of America but never broadcast. (It was the Friday after Thanksgiving. The club must have given them the night off.) It constitutes the only known live recording of the Quartet while it was a working band. The monophonic sound is clean and clear. From the opener, a slow, fervent search along the irregular contours of "Monk's Mood," it is startling simply to hear the two of them together. On paper, it should not have worked. Coltrane, in 1957, was a vertical player, a compulsive harmonicist. Monk was a linear, horizontal thinker, a melodist. Coltrane fired 16th notes, evenly spaced. Monk broke up rhythm and left holes of silence.

But it did work, sublimely. The two had instinctive rapport. Their contrasts were synergistic. After they punch out "Evidence" in rough unison, Coltrane runs off, proclaiming, and Monk chases with clanking, contrapuntal jabs. On "Crepescule With Nellie," one of Monk's jagged, suspended ur-ballads, Coltrane does not even solo, but allows his powerful voice to be additive, overlaying it on the theme statements, deepening Monk's message. Coltrane does not just run the chords of such compositions as "Nutty" and "Epistrophy" and "Bye-Ya," but structures his solos on the fullness of Monk's melodic and rhythmic ideas. Often, Monk lays out and lets Coltrane fly on the updrafts of energy created by bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and drummer Shadow Wilson. At such times, the fascination of this musical relationship lies in nothing more complex than the juxtaposition of two commanding, opposing voices. Coltrane shoots flame. And when it's time for a piano solo, guess who is there.

The high point of the evening is "Blue Monk." Coltrane sounds as if he has played it all his life, building 10 definitive blues choruses that round into revelatory wholeness. Monk, who has played it his whole life, takes a solo so fresh and bold he seems to be encountering "Blue Monk" anew.

At the time of this recording, Coltrane was 31, newly restored to physical and mental and spiritual health. Monk's inspiration enabled him to break through to a new level of passionate creative clarity. Monk was 40, an established (if misunderstood) master, and Coltrane's incendiary presence provoked him to reach beyond his firmly defined style to play some of the freest, most inventive piano of his freely inventive life.

For such music, so well recorded, to suddenly surface feels like a miracle. But it has come to light that Voice of America was allowed to record performances at Carnegie Hall for many years, free of charge, so long as the material was used exclusively for overseas broadcast. There are 50,000 Voice of America tapes in the Library of Congress, stored in a dark, climate-controlled room. No one knows for sure what is in there. Hopefully, Mr. Appelbaum will keep poking around.—Thomas Conrad

Allen Fant's picture

Outstanding disc, historic recording.