Recorded in 1952, the four sides on this Monk EP were originally issued as two 78 RPM shellac disks and also compiled on a Prestige ten-inch LP, catalog number 142, with the original cover simply reading Thelonious. I owned a copy of the latter at one point: what a gorgeous cover, and at the same time what hissy, wimpy-sounding mastering. Last year when I attended the Jazz Record Collectors’ Bash in New Jersey for the first time, I managed to meet producer and author Bob Porter, who confirmed that the first round of Prestige ten-inchers were generally shoddy. Bob told me a story of a radio jock in Manhattan dialing up Prestige to demand they continue sending 78s to the station in place of the ten-inch LPs.
|The original ten-inch pressing of PRLP-142|
Though the cymbals don’t cut through quite as much as they do on my 2000 Monk Prestige CD box, this Esquire EP is of a much higher fidelity than the original ten-inch. Do I feel that the faster speed of 45 revolutions per minute creates a significant bump in fidelity? Maybe…it would be hard to prove in this case I think. I also find it fairly neat that this EP perfectly compiles all four tracks from Monk’s inaugural recording session with Prestige.
Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley has noted that Monk had no choice but to use an old, out-of-tune piano for this session. I can hear the results of that now but I’m not enough of a musician to have heard it before I read Kelley’s book. Perhaps ironically, I think the faulty piano complements Monk’s creaky style of playing perfectly here.
Of all Monk’s work, his Prestige catalog hits a particular sweet spot: hungry performances recorded with fidelity that for the most part improves on the pianist’s previous studio sessions for Blue Note. In 1952 most modern jazz fans would have been unable to hear Monk’s newest compositions played live by their composer in the jazz clubs of New York City. As a result, they got to hear three Monk originals for the very first time with the release of these sides. On “Little Rootie Tootie”, the discordant stomping of keys comprising the chorus screams for the spotlight and is exemplary of a generally raucous session. Though this type of device may sound a little contrived to me today — far from the intricacy of “Monk’s Dream”, for example — it surely had the shock value to entice me back when I was first getting into Monk.
It’s worth noting that the three remaining songs from this session all resurfaced in 1963 on Monk’s first Columbia LP, Monk’s Dream. Like most jazz fans I’m sure, I was introduced to these songs (two originals and one standard) through the Columbia release. If one were to argue that the original Prestige recordings are a more authentic documenting of Monk’s work, it would then be a tragedy that so many jazz fans are introduced to these songs by way of the less aggressive Columbia LP. Aside from the fact that the Prestige session preceded the Columbia sessions by ten years, my personal feeling is that the band’s rawer delivery for Prestige does a better job of personifying Monk.
|Monk’s first release for Columbia Records|
That being said, when I heard the Prestige versions for the very first time, I think I probably still preferred the Columbia versions. Perhaps the former was a little too raw for me at first. For example, I definitely preferred the Columbia version of “Bye-Ya” and Frankie Dunlop’s straight-ahead swing over Art Blakey’s calypso beat on the Prestige version. But Blakey’s dirty, overly-compressed ride cymbal crashes and thunderous tom-tom hits have grown on me.
On the Columbia album Monk gives us a rather gentle reading of “Monk’s Dream”, and the dynamic, state-of-the-art quality of the Columbia recording further enhances this softer feel. This starkly contrasts with the Prestige version, where Monk plays more (dissonant) notes and is more unhinged. Again I was taken aback by this less harmonious sound initially, but over time I have come to adore it. Sandwiched between the two heads are two choruses of Monk soloing, and the way Monk flips the B-section at both passes demonstrates the pianist’s mastery of rhythm. In the first, Monk winds up with a repetitive trinkling of adjacent keys only to create an impactful sense of resolve when he brings the A-section back in smack on the “one”. The next time around Monk uses a similar motif, building us up with an ascending Chopin-esque run then landing with a swinging return to the “A”.
Monk’s reading of “Sweet and Lovely”, a less obvious standard with publishing dating back to 1931, rounds things out. Though the Prestige version is again packed with harmonic dissonance, it’s the moment on the record where everything settles down a little and the listener gets a much-deserved rest.
Typical of Esquire, and as we have now seen more than once here on DG Mono, the album art for this EP is sublime. Enjoy the audio clip and don’t sleep on Monk’s Prestige years!