As part of our deep dive into the best jazz albums of all time, we take a closer look at some of the great early recordings of iconic jazz pianist Thelonious Monk released under the title “Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1”.
Thelonious Monk’s playing style has been described as angular, disjointed and rhythmically challenging.
Indeed, many at the time found the pianist’s wayward mannerisms at the keyboard rather unusual and it was all to easy to dismiss him as a novelty or rather more harshly ‘barely able to play’.
But with encouragement from several key figures – including Blue Note producer Alfred Lion – he persevered with his idiosyncratic style and eventually received the level of widespead acclaim that his talent deserved.
The playing and compositions captured in the late 1940s and released (in various compilations) as “Genius of Modern Music” is a fascinating insight into this development.
The Makings of a Jazz Piano Genius
Of all the musicians to be influenced by the stride pianists of the Twenties and Thirties such as Fats Waller, Eubie Blake and James P. Johnson, Thelonious Sphere Monk was undoubtably one of the most important.
Initially bridging the style between stride and swing, Monk was also highly influenced by Duke Ellington, absorbing from his musical heroes and developing his own musical language.
After finding a way to incorporate elements from swing and stride piano into his vocabulary, Monk was further able to distil these influences into his sparse style of phrasing and accompaniment.
Much of this is documented through his work as the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in the early 1940.
Through this regular gig, and the accompanying cutting contests that were prevalent at the time, he honed his style and technique as Harlem stride made way for the beginnings of what would become bebop.
While Monk’s style is very much his own, it comes from a rich and diverse musical heritage, with the classical music of Bach, Mozart, Liszt and Beethoven that he studied briefly as a child merging with his early jazz influences.
In fact, his love of classical music would remain with him throughout his career, retaining a particular affinity for the music of Rachmaninoff and Chopin.
If the above influences can be detected in Monk’s playing, they are also ever present in his compositions.
As a composer, the pianist is held in high regard and many of his early compositions have become jazz standards…
Recording Genius Of Modern Music (1947-48)
‘Blue Monk’, ‘Well You Needn’t’, ‘In Walked Bud’, Straight, No Chaser’, and ‘Round Midnight’ are all staples in many set lists and the genesis of Monk’s importance as a composer and soloist can be found in his early recordings.
Arguably the most important of these were for Blue Note, promoted and marketed by producer Alfred Lion under the bold heading of Genius of Modern Music.
So convinced was he that the music being recorded was of significant importance, Alfred Lion dismissed popular opinion that the recordings would not sell.
This was of little importance to him as was willing to commit his own money into the three sessions in October and November 1947 that would form the basis of Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1, which would come to be regarded as Monk’s emergence as a major composer and pianist.
Although received with a mixed reception at the time, perceptions of Thelonious and his music slowly changed, and his original concept was more readily accepted and understood.
Reissues of Genius of Modern Music
The music captured for these sessions has been reissued multiple times over the years, from the original 10” LP compiled in 1951 with just eight titles, to the 12” LP released in 1956 with a further four titles added.
With the advent of the CD, the collection was expanded in 1989 to include a further nine selections taking the total to 21 tracks recorded over the three sessions in 1947 complete with some alternate takes and all presented in chronological order.
Blue Note LP 5002
The originally compiled 10” LP released as Blue Note LP 5002 featured eight titles, all composed by Monk. They have been well covered by others over the years but, in these recordings, we get to hear how the pianist originally conceived them.
There has been much criticism of the accompanying musicians assembled for the sessions, and it’s true that some of the playing falls short of what one would expect.
However, with the able support of Art Blakey and Gene Ramey who have a firm grasp of Monk’s methods, many of the cracks are well covered.
‘Off Minor’ is a wonderfully compact and conceived piece for the trio with Ramey’s bass line never faltering and a reigned in Blakey following the pianist carefully and with exceptionally good taste.
There is a lovely trio reading of ‘Ruby My Dear’ with the drummer confining himself to brushes, and one can feel Monk’s concentration as he expands on this lovely ballad.
The now-famous Thelonious Monk song ‘Well You Needn’t’ picks up the tempo and once again with bassist Ramey and Blakey on drums the music is exemplary, with the drummer demonstrating at this early stage just how in tune he is to the pianist.
Also significant is the appearance of ‘Round Midnight’, although listed as ‘Round About Midnight’, Monk’s first recording of his tune. Here it is Monk and Blakey who provide the interest, the pianist’s take on the tune is remarkably flowing and Blakey’s drumming is a model of economy.
The playing of the horns does not pass muster but cannot detract from Monk’s touch at the piano. Essential listening.
Blue Note BLP-1510
Five years later the music was released as 12” LP, Blue Note BLP-1510, with four additional tracks.
‘In Walked Bud’ features the same quintet as ‘Round Midnight’ with Sahib Shihab on alto and George Taitt on trumpet. Whilst Taitt takes a pleasant enough solo, his swing-derived phrasing does not sit uniformly with Monk’s more modern concept and approach.
‘April In Paris’ again features a trio, as does ‘Introspection’ and it is these tracks that provide the most satisfying music.
Indeed, it would be some years before Thelonious Monk would find suitable horn players for his music, and these would manifest themselves in Johnny Griffin, John Coltrane and Charlie Rouse; three very different musicians who would all benefit immeasurably from their time spent with Monk.
Genius of Modern Music (1989 CD)
The CD re-issue of the Genius of Modern Music in 1989 adds no less than seven alternate takes, adding two new compositions to the set.
How one views these alternate takes depends on how one enjoys the more scholarly aspect of comparing one take to another.
Our recommendation is always to spend time with the originally selected master takes, as often this is how the artist would wish their work to be heard. If a take is rejected, there is often a good reason for doing so.
Of the new titles, ‘Evonce’ is little more than a bebop theme played by a sextet. Danny Quebec West on alto saxophone and trumpeter Idrees Sulieman acquit themselves well, but there is nothing special here from Monk. The same can be said of ‘Suburban Eyes’.
How Important Was The Genius of Modern Music?
Without exaggeration, these recordings heralded the arrival of one of the most important composers and pianists in modern jazz.
Often his music is jarring and dissonant with unusual rhythmic patterns but there is no mistaking Monk’s harmonic sophistication and idiosyncratic sense of melody.
Many of Monk’s classic compositions are documented on them, and also establish that the best way to hear Monk in the early years was in the trio format – especially if Art Blakey was occupying the drum stool.
These early recordings are not flawless but do set out the blueprint for one of the true giants of the music.
Alfred Lion and Blue Note’s judgement and faith in the Monk have been proved well justified, and catch the pianist at a crucial stage in his development when no one else was really listening.
Humph / Evonce / Suburban Eyes / Thelonious / Evonce (alternate take) / Suburban Eyes (alternate take) / Nice Work If You Can Get It/ Ruby My Dear / Well You Needn’t / April In Paris / Off Minor / Introspection / Nice Work If You Can Get It (alternate take) / Ruby My Dear (alternate take) / Well You Needn’t (alternate take) / April In Paris (alternate take) / In Walked Bud / Monk’s Mood / Who Knows? / ‘Round Midnight / Who Knows? (alternate take)
1-6 recorded Oct 15, 1947; 7-16 recorded Oct 24 1947 & 17-21 recorded Nov 21, 1947