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 that had a contract with Monk, a mere $108 and got Monk off that contract. Weinstock was not upset over losing Monk. The genius of modern jazz was an esteemed musician to all who knew him, but his albums did not sell. Weinstock had more commercially successful artists to focus on, including Miles Davis and The Modern Jazz Quartet, and did not shed a tear when Monk left his label. Thinking that Monk’s originals are too bizarre for the jazz audience at large, Keepnews pushed Monk to play familiar pieces with the hope that this 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.
Reviews were not favorable to these albums. Down beat wrote this on the Ellington LP: “It does Monk little good to force him to adapt to a program for which he has little empathy as a pianist-writer, though he may have large liking for Ellington as a listener.” Keepnews forgot that what makes Monk unique is not necessarily his performance or interpretation skills, its his compositions. Monk already wrote many of his best loved compositions by that time, including ‘Round Midnight, Off Minor, Straight No Chaser and Blue Monk to name a few, but he had more material coming. After a fire destroyed most of the possessions at his house in early 1956, his piano included, he started composing at the residence of the Baroness of Jazz Pannonica de Koenigswarter, equipped with a Steinway grand. He also frequented many jazz sessions, chauffeured by aforementioned royalty.
Keepnews realized his error and set Monk to do what he does best – perform his own compositions. Monk’s first recruit for his next album was Ernie Henry, a forgotten alto saxophone player who, like so many other jazz musicians at the time, was addicted to heroin. Monk, himself a past user of the evil drug, tried to get Henry’s career back together and got him a record deal at Riverside. Henry was able to record two albums under his own name plus a few others as a sideman before he died from an overdose in 1957. Orient, an original from Presenting Ernie Henry, is a fine example of his composing and soloing abilities.
Monk was planning a quintet record, and as a second horn player he wanted Sonny Rollins, with whom he was practicing regularly. Rollins had a stellar year in 1956, after overcoming his own drug addiction. A few months before recording with Monk he released a number of excellent albums with Prestige. Tenor Madness, with members of the Miles Davis’ classic quintet (John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones) and the milestone album Saxophone Colossus with Rollins’ best known composition, St. Thomas.
Oscar Pettiford was a natural choice for a bass player, having played with Monk on his two previous Riverside recordings. Aside from performing as a sideman on numerous recordings around that time with Kenny Burrell, Milt Jackson and Phineas Newborn Jr among others, he led his own small big band with whom he released a few albums, including The Pendulum at Falcon’s Lair.
Max Roach needs no introduction. By 1956 he was a sought-after session drummer, that year alone playing on records by Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Johnny Griffin, Thad Jones and Al Cohn. During the previous two years he co-led with Clifford Brown one of the most successful jazz combos of its time, commercially and artistically. But in June of 1956 Brown tragically died in a car accident that also killed the band’s pianist Richie Powell. Roach continued to lead his own bands, and the same month he recorded with Monk he also released the album Max Roach + 4. Dr Free-Zee is an interesting track on it, for its use of timpani. More on that in a little bit.
Keepnews booked several sessions in October 1956 at his favorite Reeves Sound Studios in New York City. 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 sessions, 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 studio had an interesting impact on Monk’s sessions for Brilliant Corners as it hosted a large variety of a classical orchestra instruments. For curious musicians such as Monk and Max Roach this was irresistible and some of these instruments found their way into the album.
The first session took place on October 9th, 1956 and contributed two original pieces written by Monk for this recording, both of them dedicated to the Baroness. Pannonica is a unique ballad for its use of celeste, a bell-like keyboard instrument. Monk saw it in the studio and decided to use it in the recording, standing it next to the piano and playing both of them simultaneously. You can clearly hear it during the opening, Monk’s solo and ending of the song.
Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are is a tricky blues song, sounding as a quite simple AAB form until you get to the B part, in which Monk’s placement of accent does to fall as you might expect within the bar lines. The tongue twister title is a reference to the Bolivar Hotel at 230 Central Park West, where Pannonica stayed and hosted noisy late-night jam sessions for her favorite jazz musicians. Monk experienced first-hand the trouble she got into with the hotel management, being one of the culprits.
The second session on October 15th was a different ball game altogether. Orrin Keepnews usually got all he needed for an album release within two sessions. The plan was to record three more tracks and have the album wrapped up. After more than twenty takes of the same song, an unheard-of amount in those days of hasty jazz recordings, they called it a night without a single satisfactory take. The attempted piece was Brilliant Corners, which became the album’s title. One look at the song’s chart explains it.
Unlike a typical blues made up of three parts, eight bars each, 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. Ernie Henry in particular struggled with the form and Monk’s accompaniment behind his solo made things even worse. Monk was not your typical supportive piano accompanist. If you were a soloist playing with him, he kept throwing those off-beat accents as you solo. For accomplished soloists with a sense of rhythm similar to Monk’s this created an interesting tension, but for others it was a tough challenge. Monk voluntarily did something that in the past (a famous incident with Miles Davis on a Milt Jackson session comes to mind) he was forced to do: play nothing behind the soloist. Oscar Pettiford was also fuming over the form, telling Monk he did not have enough bars.
Orrin Keepnews recalled the session in the reissue of the album in 2007: “I was uncomfortably aware that a new producer’s mannerism of mine might be contributing to the growing confusion. The recording engineer traditionally slated each take of a selection by announcing it on the tape just before the downbeat, but would often keep the take numbers from getting too high by not identifying each fumbled start or almost-immediate breakdown. I, however, felt it would make things clearer when we were reviewing and editing, days or even weeks later, if each beginning no matter how brief, had its own take number. Thus, one legend that sprang up about this session is technically true, although misleading. There were indeed twenty four takes announced on tape. There actually was not a single complete recorded performance, and very few that continued through the solos. Most typically, someone missed his ensemble entry at the tempo-change point.”
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. One splice was made at the end of Max Roach’s solo at 6:22. There is an unnatural silence there before the full ensemble comes back for the closing theme. Still, the ending result yielded one of Monk’s best ensemble performances, and in my opinion it is one of the legendary composer’s best compositions.
Realizing that there is not enough material yet for a full album, Keepnews scheduled one more session on December 7th 1956. Monk ran out of new material and decided to give Bemsha swing, an older tune of his, a new interpretation. The song was first recorded for the album Thelonious Monk Trio on Prestige in 1952, also with Max Roach. The ever inventive drummer had the same musical curiosity as Monk and decided to augment his drum set with a timpani he noticed in the studio, as he did a few months earlier on his Max Roach +4 album. You can hear him playing drum fills on the timpani all over the song. By the time of this session Ernie Henry joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band and was replaced by Clack Terry. The bickering between Monk and Oscar Pettiford left a sour taste in both musician’s mouths and they were not to meet again on a recording session. Rising star Paul Chambers joined the band on that session instead.
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 rating in a Down Beat review, calling it Riverside’s most important modern jazz LP to date. The back cover of the album contained notes by Orrin Keepnews: “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.” Keepnews 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 liner notes writer.
Thelonious Monk’s association with Riverside Records proved to be a productive and creative period in his career. Between 1955 and 1961 Monk participated in 30 recording sessions for Riverside and released 14 studio and live albums. Among them you can find one of 1950s jazz milestones, his collaboration with John Coltrane recorded at the Five Spot in 1958. He later formed a great quartet with saxophonist Charlie Rouse and kept recording with it for Riverside until 1961, when he signed a more lucrative deal with Columbia. Orrin Keepnews benefited from this relationship as much as Monk: “Monk was not about to show any mercy. He had his standards. I probably learned as much about living from him as I did about music. This was a man whose music was initially ridiculed by people who damn well should’ve known better, a man who stayed true to himself. I learned how to conduct my life, what to insist on for myself and of myself.” Brilliant Corners is likely the album that truly started this journey for both musician and producer.
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Very much enjoyed this article and added music. Thank you for posting it! 👊🏻✊🏻
In 1955, Monk’s originals really were still too bizarre for the jazz audience at large, and even the critically acclaimed “Brilliant Corners” wasn’t able to substantially change that–though it was the right move and laid some foundations with jazz critics. His return to live performance in NYC after having his cabaret card reinstated (specifically his high profile gig at the Five Spot) is where things really started to turn around for Monk. Keepnews’ decision to play it safe on the first two Riverside albums didn’t pay off as he’d hoped, but then again, Bob Weinstock and Alfred Lion hadn’t done very well trying to sell Monk’s originals, so Keepnews’ strategy makes a lot of sense in the context of where Monk was at the time. Here’s Ethan Iverson on the first two Riverside albums–I’d take Iverson’s opinion over 1950s Downbeat writers any day:
+ + + +
“Plays Duke Ellington”: Apparently the first two discs of “covers” were Keepnews’s idea, and bless him for it. Monk plays Ellington must be about the first and still one of the best examples of a concept album. The gait between Monk, Pettiford, and Clarke is spectacular. Monk’s touch is more delicate than usual here, and Clarke whispers along on brushes. Each track is beautiful in its own way, I’m always struck by something new. During my most recent listen I could not believe the first wildly abstract phrases of “Black and Tan Fantasy.”
“The Unique Thelonious Monk”: Perhaps not as rarefied as the Duke album but still essential. The opening “Liza” is Monk at his most explosive: Many years later Paul Motian would begin On Broadway Vol. 1 with a similar statement of “Liza.” “Just You, Just Me” has an arrangement that has gone on to be canonical. “Tea for Two” is harmonized with the progression from “Skippy.” The full-arm black key cluster after white key chords on “You Are Too Beautiful” is pure Thelonious.
Excellent comment, thanks for posting. Ethan Iverson’s DO THE M@TH blog is a great read and has been quoted here a number of times. As for Orrin Keepnews and Monk, this is what the producer wrote about The Unique Thelonious Monk: “In this album and its immediate predecessor, there is no attempt to ‘change’ Monk. There could be no possibility of doing that even if anyone wanted to. The decision to bypass Monk’s originals stems from a desire to deflate a myth that has gotten somehow out of hand. For a variety of reason this pioneer modernist has gained the reputation of being a rather forbiddingly difficult to understand musician.”