Two things are fairly obvious from the start of this Carnegie Hall performance by the Thelonious Monk Quartet. The first is that, folklorish revisionism notwithstanding, Monk does possess conventional piano technique; he always plays the instrument at hand, utilizing whatever methods he believes will best suit its sonorities. On the Steinway recorded here, Monk is all over the keyboard in ways that would satisfy the most conservative stickler for the legitimately “correct.”
The other thing — a strange one — is that John Coltrane is nervous about being on the big stage; he sounds decidedly mortal on the opening duet, “Monk’s Mood.” This changes as the program moves forward. Trane opens up as Monk’s playing becomes less restricted and more “Monkish.” The concert catches both Monk and Coltrane at crossroads, the former coming to the end of a long period of creativity, the latter just into the early stages of innovation that would develop uninterrupted for the remaining 10 years of his life. The men were a marked study in contrasts: the studious Coltrane, jazz’s greatest harmonic constructionist, picking up his post-graduate lessons about melody and space from the otherworldly Monk. Aside from “Sweet and Lovely,” the entire program is made up of Monk compositions; “Evidence”, “Nutty,” “Epistrophy” and “Blue Monk” will all be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of jazz history.
The group, rounded out by bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and drummer Shadow Wilson, was already well seasoned by the time they played Carnegie Hall, having gone through a lengthy stay (with Wilbur Ware mostly in place of Abdul-Malik) for much of the year. This familiarity is clear from the time the group begins “Evidence.” There’s plenty of energy as Trane takes off on his solo, but there’s also a sense that everyone knows what to expect from everyone else (even from Monk). Monk takes an anti-Coltrane solo, building entirely from thematic material, a minimalist approach. Trane sounds at home on “Nutty,” pushed by Shadow Wilson’s driving drumming. Monk lies back through some of the tenor solo, and Coltrane seems to thrive on the added leeway. Wilson sets up a complex rhythmic pattern on “Epistrophy” as Monk emphasizes certain trigger points in the composition. Coltrane uses the leader’s chords as frames of reference. “Bye-ya” finds Monk feistily jabbing at Coltrane during the sax solo, creating a tremendously effective tension. Abdul-Malik then establishes a strong walk, over which Monk takes his best solo of the night, an ingenious mixture of stabbing chords, epigrammatic melody references, and off-kilter arpeggios. The standard “Sweet and Lovely” features the piano, with tenor taking on an accompanying role. Thelonious does take pains to play the tune sweetly. He overshadows Coltrane, who was still working out a personal solution to ballad playing at this stage of this career. Monk opts to give “Blue Monk” a more lively reading than is usual for the piece. Coltrane gives the piece a fluent workout, then the pianist demonstrates how much can be said with one or two well placed notes. The quartet wraps things up with a recapitulation of “Epistrophy” that fades as Monk begins his solo. He sounds like he’s satisfied with the way things are going. And Monk was a hard man to please.