Vinyl Spotlight: Thelonious Monk Plays (Esquire 20-075) Original 10″ UK Pressing

  • Original UK pressing circa 1955
  • RVG etched in dead wax

Recorded September 22, 1954 at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey

Selection: “Work” (Monk)

For a picky, minimalist collector like myself, collecting Monk on vintage vinyl has proved challenging. Never a fan of collecting compilations on vinyl, I have never pursued the early Blue Note LPs (BLP 1510/11). While the performances are undoubtedly world-class (and my favorite Monk studio performances), the recordings were made direct-to-disk in the late forties and early fifties and are lower fidelity. His Prestige recordings from ’52 to ’54 were made to tape and are a significant sonic improvement, but the body of work was presented in a rather jumbled set of LP compilations in the mid to late fifties (PRLP 7027/7053/7075). From there, I’ve never been a huge fan of Riverside original pressings, and the Columbia-era Monk recordings are not among my favorites.

So where has this left me with Monk on vinyl? I have many OJC CD reissues of his Riverside albums, also the 1994 Blue Note CD box, the 2000 Prestige CD box, and my favorite Columbia recordings in various digital formats. I’ve also started collecting his original Blue Note 78s, but after about six months I have only been able to acquire a single disk.

The 2000 Prestige CD box set

The Prestige dates hold a special place in my heart. They are a perfect storm of electrifying performances and quality sonics (the earliest dates aren’t quite at the same level of recording quality as the later but they still improve on the sound of the Blue Note recordings). Knowing this, I thought I’d try out various vintage pressings of these titles. I started with the Bergenfield reissues of catalog numbers 7027 and 7075, renamed Monk’s Moods and Work!, respectively. Monk’s Moods was a fine piece of wax but I settled for a needledrop, while the copy of Work! I got had the fatal “Bergenfield hiss”.

Next was an original ten-inch pressing of catalog number 142 (Thelonious). What a gorgeous cover, and it was in great shape, but upon playback it became clear that some engineers still hadn’t quite figured out mastering for LP by 1952. The music was very low in volume compared to the surface noise and playback was hissy. Recently I also got a hold of a clean copy of PRLP 7075 (Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins). It sounded great but again I found myself satisfied with a needledrop.

When I told a friend about my bad luck with the original ten-inch Prestige LP, he concurred that the earliest of those are generally a bit lo-fi. But he also assured me that Monk’s 1954 Hackensack date for Prestige, originally appearing as PRLP 189 (Thelonious Monk Plays), is a marked improvement. Then I remembered all the stories I’ve heard about how outstanding the British Esquire pressings of Prestige material are, and I had all the Monk titles in my Discogs wantlist. So I went to take a look and lo and behold, this copy of Esquire 20-075 (the British version of Prestige 189) in strong VG+ condition and located in the United States nonetheless. It took very little time for me to make an offer, which was gracefully accepted.

The original 1955 10″ US pressing of Thelonious Monk Plays

I already had my suspicions that the rumors about Esquire LPs were true based on my experience with original pressings of Beatles albums on their native Parlophone label, and I can now confirm that the Esquire pressings walk the walk. This is surely in part due to the surprising fact many of the Esquires (including this one) use the original Rudy Van Gelder mastering made from the master tapes at home here in the states.

This session checks all the boxes: songwriting, performance, and sound quality. “Work” may just be my favorite Monk composition of all time. Its off-kilter melody prances around with nagging dissonance, refusing to settle on any sort of traditional harmonic idea. The date also features the first-ever studio recordings of “Nutty” and “Blue Monk”, which would soon enter the canon of popular jazz standards.

In 1954 Art Blakey hadn’t yet developed what would become his patented style of hard swinging. I personally prefer his more conventional use of swing in the mid-fifties, which can be heard here and elsewhere on collaborations with leaders Horace Silver, Herbie Nichols, and Randy Weston. On this particular date, the drummer takes a few tastefully restrained solos. Among the highlights is a stretch on “Nutty” where he impressively creates a waltzing counter-rhythm with his cymbals all while continuing to play the tune’s standard 4/4 rhythm with the tom-toms. When Blakey suddenly springs back into a committed 4/4 it makes for an exciting moment. But perhaps even more awe-inspiring are his polyrhythmics on “Work”, which make it sound as if he’s playing at two different tempos simultaneously, only to eventually lock everything back together again in perfect unison.

Art Blakey on the drums in Rudy Van Gelder’s living room studio, Hackensack, New Jersey

Sonically this is one of Rudy Van Gelder’s finest moments. While my Prestige CD box sounds great in its own right, the original mastering has its own redeeming qualities. The cymbals have a gentle sheen and Percy Heath’s bass is deep and rich. For the majority of the program Monk’s piano sounds open and resonant. The upper harmonics get noticeably blanketed on “Just a Gigolo”, but dare I say it almost sounds intentional and gives the instrument a brooding tone that enhances this “Monkified” reading of an already melancholy ballad.

Finally, as for album art, there’s not many that are going to top this. The pairing of turquoise for the Pollack-esque paint splatter along with deep black for the bold presentation of the leader’s surname is indeed sublime.