Thelonious Comes Alive

John Coltrane, Shadow Wilson, Thelonius Monk, and Ahmed Abdul-Malik at the Five Spot Café in New York, 1957.Photo: Don Schlitten/Courtesy of Blue Note

I was at the bar of the Village Vanguard during a set one night a couple of years ago, when the owner, Lorraine Gordon, sidled up to me and whispered in my ear. “Can you watch those two?” she asked, pointing out a pair of Japanese women sitting at a nearby table. “I think they’re recording.”

As it turns out, they weren’t (one of them was tapping her foot, which would have ruined a recording), but Gordon’s suspicions weren’t without foundation. Jazz fans have been recording their heroes—with and without approval—for decades. Some of these recordings have produced the biggest developments this season: new live discs featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. They augur a new trend in the music—legends heard anew and at their best.

Dizzy Gillespie–Charlie Parker Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945 (Uptown) was the first of these discs to make a splash, and for good reason. It’s one of the first known documented collaborations between the trumpet giant and alto-saxophone god. They had played together in a couple of big bands and some legendary but still (to our knowledge) undocumented late-night jam sessions at Harlem clubs. An acetate of the recording was discovered on the collector circuit by Robert Sunenblick, a doctor and owner of Uptown Records. Bebop was still in its infancy at this time, and the shine of recent invention informs their playing. Their solos skitter along with the urbane, adrenaline-pumping rush of a late-night high-speed ride through midtown, but their playing is more than just breakneck derring-do. There’s a fluid sensibility that moves from abstraction to bluesiness, especially on the classic-to-be “Night in Tunisia,” with an elegance missing in most other explosions of modernity. This is rebel music that embraced beauty, and here, as opposed to some of the artists’ later work, they weren’t simply rehashing licks. They were setting a new standard.

Buzz has been building about Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note) since its discovery earlier this year by Larry Appelbaum, an engineer at the Library of Congress, during an otherwise routine digitization of some Voice of America tapes. The concert, from November 29, 1957, at Carnegie Hall, was never aired, yet the music is vital and possibly the best new jazz release of the past five years. Monk and Coltrane played together for six months that year, but their collaboration is not well documented. During his tenure with Monk, Coltrane consolidated many of his ideas and began developing the sound that would make him one of the all-time greats. He is building toward the commanding tone he would display on his later recordings, but the highlight here is his relaxed mastery of Monk’s rhythmic nuances. Monk established his style a decade earlier, and his sense of time and rhythm is so distinct, and seems so natural now, it’s as if he were the grammarian who invented commas.

Coltrane appears on another newly discovered recording, One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note (Impulse!). This music is from a 1965 WABC-FM radio broadcast, parts of which had floated around bootleggers’ circles for decades. The two-disc set captures Coltrane’s famed early-sixties quartet nearing a transition. The master’s potent saxophone sound, as close as any jazz instrument has come to equaling the passion of a human voice, was beginning to turn toward anguished dissonance. The title track is a 27-minute torrent of energy. You can hear the disconnect forming among members of the quartet, which would soon change personnel. But the deeply spiritual quality that draws people to Coltrane’s music is still in full effect.

Why did these recordings surface contemporaneously? Jazz historian Phil Schaap believes it’s a coincidence, noting that they all took substantially different routes to the market. However, he agrees that this is only the beginning. Town Hall has a number of acetates of other concerts from that era. There are literally thousands of broadcasts of jazz masters performing live. Carl Smith, a retired lawyer, has collected more than 350 bootlegs of Sonny Rollins in concert, and the legendary tenor saxophonist has consented to one release and could allow more.

Pity today’s jazz artists whose work was already vying for shelf space against gussied-up reissues of old masters. The current jazz crop is producing music of stunning variety and quality, but what they’re up against in these new recordings isn’t close to a fair fight.

Thelonious Comes Alive