Monk and Coltrane, lost and found

This week I’m revisiting another album that fell into a technological black hole when I revamped my kitchen boombox sidebar blog sometime back. Restoring something that was lost is especially appropriate for this album.

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall

Have you ever misplaced something for so long that when it finally turns up, you’d forgotten you ever had it in the first place? The Library of Congress had a doozy of a moment like this in 2005. One of their engineers unearthed an unmarked box with tapes of this historic concert in it, tapes no one even knew to look for. And so this November 29, 1957, performance became one of the hottest new jazz releases in 2005. Not a re-release—a new release.

To call the discovery of the forgotten Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall tapes an important find doesn’t begin to do it justice. More than an amazing historical document of the far too brief collaboration of these two giants, it’s just plain great jazz. The eccentric Thelonious Monk has been both lauded and slammed for his iconoclastic piano playing—a spare, muscular and decidedly unrefined sound that is instantly recognizable as no one but Monk. If you like that style—and I do—this pairing with Coltrane’s brilliant solos is sublime. Bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and drummer Shadow Wilson round out the group. Monk is considered one of the founders of bebop, and this disk puts you squarely in the exploding 50s New York jazz scene, while still sounding fresh and relevant.

Perhaps almost as remarkable as the find of this lost treasure is the fact that Monk and Coltrane were only the second act of a five-act show that included Chet Baker, Ray Charles and headliner Billie Holiday. Alas, their performances aren’t part of this CD, but the poster for the event is included with the liner notes. It tells us that tickets for this fundraiser for Harlem’s now defunct Morningside Community Center ranged from $2 to a whopping $3.95—tax deductible, of course.

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