Brilliant Corners, by Thelonious Monk

When producer Orrin Keepnews signed Thelonious Monk to his newly formed Riverside label in 1955, he had to come up with a plan. He paid Bob Weinstock, president of Prestige records, a mere $108 and got Monk off his Prestige contract. Weinstock did not shed tears over losing Monk. The genius of modern jazz was an esteemed musician to all who knew him, but his records did not sell. Keepnews made a mistake, thinking that if Monk will play standards he will increase his record sales. Monk recorded two trio albums of well-known jazz tunes, the first with material from the Duke Ellington songbook, the second with show tune standards. The two albums, like the Prestige albums that preceded them, flopped. Keepnews forgot that what makes Monk unique is not necessarily his performance or interpretation skills, its his compositions. Monk already wrote some of his best loved compositions by that time, and he had more material coming. Keepnews realized his error and set Monk to do what he does best – perform his own compositions. To top it, he booked a stellar band for his next recording, including Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Oscar Pettiford and Ernie Henry.

Keepnews booked several sessions in October 1956 at his favorite Reeves Sound Studios in NYC. The studio did mostly radio and jingles recording work during the day and Keepnews, closely watching the spending of his on-a-budget label, worked out an arrangement with the studio to record at night, after the musicians finished their gigs. The studio and the engineer on many of the Riverside records, Jack Higgins, produced some of the best sounding jazz records of the 50s, but unfortunately remain lesser known then their counterparts at Blue Note and Columbia. You can read more about the studio here: Reeves Sound Studios.

The first session went very well. Monk recorded two tunes he wrote for jazz baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter whom he met in Paris. “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are” was named after the Bolivar Hotel at 230 Central Park West where Pannonica stayed in 1956, and a tune he named after her, “Pannonica”. The second session was a different story, and is the one that yielded the title track of his next album, Brilliant Corners. A lot has been written on this recording session. The gist of it is that it took over 20 takes, an outrageous amount at a time when 2 or 3 takes were typical for jazz recordings, during which Oscar Pettiford almost called it quits and the band never really completed one full satisfactory take. One look at the chart explains it. This is a 22-bar blues, grouped into three parts with 8-7-7 bars. The tune changes tempos and the accents are in places only Monk could think of. No wonder even performers at that level almost gave up. When the dust settled on the recording studio, Keepnews had to combine two takes with some splicing magic to get the tune on the record.

As difficult as the recording was, it paid off and the album was Monk’s first truly successful album. Nat Hentoff gave it a 5-star review in a Down Beat review, calling it Riveside’s most important modern jazz LP to date. The back cover of the album contained notes by Raymond Harris: “These men worked hard. They struggled and concentrated and shook their heads over some passages with those half-smiles that mean: Hard? This is impossible! For the original compositions on this date represent Monk at his most inventive and therefore at his most challenging. Brilliant Corners, with its uneven meter and its tempo changes is undoubtedly the real back-breaker.” Harris got it mostly right, although the tune is not in uneven meter, it is 4/4 throughout. It is the odd count of the bars that threw everyone off, including the notes writer.

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