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Who's Afraid of Monk?

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Following its release in 1974, Who's Afraid of the Big Band Monk? was scorned by jazz fans and critics. The double album featured Thelonious Monk recorded in 1963 and 1968 with large ensembles. The earlier live date covered both sides of the first record and was arranged by Hall Overton. The second record was a studio date arranged by Oliver Nelson. I loved the album—the Nelson material much more so than the Overton record—and never quite understood why so many dismissed it. 

Yesterday, I gave the album a re-listen. I hadn't heard it since the '70s and found the Nelson record even stronger than I remember it. His arrangements, with their tightly pressed reeds and wailing brass, were the perfect foil for Monk's jagged runs and percussive pecking. Nelson (above) did a magnificent job crafting each chart with Monk's mood and keyboard attack in mind. To have Monk along for the tribute made Nelson's music even more fascinating and engaging.

The first album consists of I Mean You, Evidence, Oska T, Four in One and Epistrophy. It was recorded at New York's Lincoln Center on Dec. 30, 1963. The band featured Thad Jones (cnt), Nick Travis (tp), Eddie Bert (tb), Steve Lacy (sop), Phil Woods (as,cl), Charlie Rouse (ts), Gene Allen (bars,cl,b-cl), Thelonious Monk (p), Butch Warren (b) and Frankie Dunlop (d). Hall Overton arranged.

The second album featured Let's Cool One, Reflections, Rootie Tootie, Just a Glance at Love, Brilliant Corners, Consecutive Seconds, Monk's Point, Trinkle Tinkle and Straight No Chaser. They were recorded in Los Angeles on Nov. 20, 1968. The mind-blowing big band included Bobby Bryant, Conte Candoli and Freddie Hill (tp); Billy Byers, Mike Wimberly and Lou Blackburn (tb) and/or Bob Bralinger (tb); Ernie Watts (as); Charlie Rouse (ts) on solos; Ernie Small (bars); Tom Scott (ts,fl); Buddy Collette (as,fl) and/or Gene Cipriano (reeds); Thelonious Monk (p); Howard Roberts (g); Larry Gales (b); Ben Riley and John Guerin (d), with arranger Oliver Nelson conducting.

The Nelson material represented the most ambitious and successful band interpretations of Monks music until Bill Holman's Brilliant Corners: The Music of Thelonious Monk in 1997. I suspect part of the long-standing snootiness over the Nelson session had to do with where it was recorded—on the West Coast. The other issue for Monk-ites probably had to do with the album's cover, which featured an illustration of a wolf with Monk's face. Both were pretty dumb beefs all things considered.

Listening back, it's hard to have anything but praise for Nelson's seamless integration of his orchestra and Monk's piano. I only wish he had recorded a couple more albums like this one with Monk.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved.

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