THELONIOUS MONK and JOHN COLTRANE: ‘Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane’ (OJC/Craft Recordings) 

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In the spring of 1957, an exasperated Miles Davis reluctantly fired John Coltrane from his band because of the tenor saxophonist’s increasing heroin usage. Shocked by his dismissal, Coltrane went home to Philadelphia with his tail between his legs but rather than fall into self-pity and deeper into drug addiction, he vowed to turn his life around, and went “cold turkey,” which meant abruptly stopping his drug intake and suffering terrible withdrawal symptoms as a consequence. With the help of his family, he toughed it out and became clean, never doing drugs again. Coltrane’s musical rehabilitation began shortly after that when Thelonious Monk offered him a gig in the summer of ‘57, playing at New York’s Five Spot venue; Coltrane ended up staying with Monk’s band for six months. 

Playing with Monk, who was renowned for his dissonant harmonies and unusual meters, was challenging for even the most accomplished of musicians, but Coltrane was quick to learn from the eccentric jazz guru and soon adapted to the pianist/composer’s quirky style with its harmonic surprises. The pair recorded in the studio together in June and July of 1957 for Riverside Records but their collaborations weren’t released until 1961 on the label’s Jazzland imprint, by which time Coltrane had become one of modern jazz’s biggest stars and most progressive musicians. 

Their album together, Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane, is now reissued on 180-gram vinyl by the revamped Original Jazz Classics (OJC) label via Craft Recordings. Thanks to audio expert Kevin Gray’s meticulous all-analogue audiophile mastering, the album, which is 66 years old, sounds stupendous; probably better than any previous pressings in terms of clarity, soundstage, and instrument separation. And it also looks good, presented in sturdy cardboard packaging with a silver obi-strip.   

As for the music and performances, they are timeless. The album begins with Monk’s lovely ballad ‘Ruby, My Dear,’ where Coltrane shows his tender side with lovely bursts of lyricism while bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Shadow Wilson provide solid, grounded support. 

By contrast, the energetic, hard-swinging ‘Trinkle, Trinkle’ is a piece defined by chromatic melodic motifs, though Coltrane navigates the pianist’s tricky chord changes with aplomb.  

‘Off Minor’ is a revamp of a jaunty Monk warhorse that the pianist first recorded in 1947 while the infectious ‘Epistrophy,’ is slightly older, first copyrighted six years earlier. Monk recorded both tunes many times throughout his career, always bringing something different to them. The versions heard here offer a case in point, pairing Coltrane up with another tenor titan, Coleman Hawkins, playing as part of a four-piece brass section that includes altoist Gigi Gryce and trumpeter Ray Copeland. The legendary drummer Art Blakey keeps the band cooking.

Another Monk evergreen ‘Nutty’ – dating from 1954 and which became a live favourite – is given a quartet treatment while the final track, ‘Functional,’ despite its rather uninspired title, is a solo piano piece by Monk.  

Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane is indisputably a jazz classic but it’s much more than a great album; it’s a historic landmark in modern jazz capturing the moment when two bonafide giants of the genre joined forces to create an inspired masterpiece.  (The album is released on May 26: You can pre-order here

5/5 (CW)