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New reissue features Thelonious Monk

August 24, 2012
By Mark Miller , The Herald-Star

Last week I reviewed the new Columbia Legacy series featuring jazz and other completist box sets found online at and by clicking on the complete albums link.

Last week I reviewed the Mingus box set, and this week I take a look at the Thelonious Monk box set, also recently released.

Pianist Thelonious Monk was one of the founding pillars of modern jazz.

Instrumental in the bebop era through his sterling and groundbreaking releases on the Blue Note, Riverside, Prestige and Black Lion indie jazz labels, Monk's unusual, daring and difficult music gradually permeated into the jazz lexicon through his penned classics "'Round Midnight," "Straight, No Chaser," "Epistrophy," "Nutty" and others.

Monk also recorded a smattering of highly individualized standards during his career. Generally ignored by the public for much of his early recorded years, modern jazz musicians loved his challenging and totally original compositions, and his songs were prolifically recorded by dozens of progressive jazz cats.

"'Round Midnight" is one of the most covered jazz songs ever, made famous by Miles Davis' definitive version on his 1958 Columbia release of the same name.

The song - along with a starring cover story in Time magazine on Monk's eccentric music and philosophy - brought him to the attention of Columbia Records, which released six albums featuring his music and quartet in the 1960s. "Monk's Dream," "Criss-Cross," "It's Monk's Time," "Monk," "Straight, No Chaser" and "Underground" featured Monk's classic quartet of Monk on piano, Charles Rouse on saxophone, John Orr or Larry Gales on bass and Ben Riley on drums.

While there's been valid criticism Monk had recorded most of his material for other labels by the time he got to Columbia, he still composed many songs as well as recording unique cover versions of standards during his tenure with the label. In the 1960s Monk also had his most sympathetic band with players that understood his music and sometimes-difficult directions on how it should be played. And that stellar quality is there on every one of these, as the final judgment is always on the music itself.

The real gems are Monk's solo renditions of standards and his originals that pepper his Columbia output, with his whole-tone runs, very unique harmonic vision and sense of "stride" piano. I never tire of listening to Monk playing solo, and that alone makes this box set a treat.

(Miller can be contacted at

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