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Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Observer | Review | Unlikely cold war warriors

The Observer | Review | Unlikely cold war warriors Jazz CD of the week
Unlikely cold war warriors

Dave Gelly
Sunday September 18, 2005
The Observer

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at the Carnegie Hall
(Blue Note 0946 3 36023 2 8V)

Buried treasure doesn't come much rarer than this. In November 1957, Thelonious Monk's quartet, with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, played in a gala concert at Carnegie Hall in aid of a Harlem charity. The event was recorded by Voice of America, the radio propaganda arm of the US government, aimed at eastern bloc countries during the Cold War.

The tapes were filed in VOA's archive, but someone forgot to label the boxes. They languished for nearly 48 years, until the process of transferring the archive to digital format unearthed them this year.

Things like this happen from time to time and usually the only people to get excited are jazz completists, but this is different. The Monk-Coltrane quartet was a sensational but short-lived affair. It lasted less than six months and recorded a mere three numbers in the studio. Apart from a rather scruffy live recording made by the first Mrs Coltrane on a primitive portable machine, that was the band's total legacy - until now.

When this set of eight numbers was recorded, the quartet had been playing regularly, six nights a week, for the previous four months. It had reached that stage of mutual trust and understanding that only comes with time; the unhesitating confidence with which Monk and Coltrane play together is quite breathtaking.

It hadn't been like that at the start. Coltrane once said that playing with the unpredictable Monk was 'like being dropped down an elevator shaft'.

The three studio numbers were done before their association had settled down and there are some uncomfortable moments in them. These newly rediscovered and beautifully recorded pieces are infinitely better and give a much truer picture of the quartet's achievement. Monk's cryptic, angular themes, such as 'Evidence' and 'Epistrophy', are notoriously difficult to master, but Coltrane bounces through them with almost jocular ease.

For his part, Monk takes obvious delight in having the Carnegie concert grand under his fingers, instead of the usual nightclub piano, and his playing expands accordingly. He must have played 'Ruby My Dear' thousands of times during his career, but rarely with such resonant delicacy. Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Shadow Wilson, on bass and drums respectively, remain pretty discreet throughout, but their support never wavers.

This marked the start of a new life for both men. Coltrane had cured himself of the heroin habit that caused Miles Davis to sack him in 1956 and had experienced what he described as a 'spiritual awakening'. From this point until his death 10 years later, his creativity would be unbounded. Monk's period in obscurity was over. His image had changed from that of harmless lunatic to fashionable eccentric and he was on the way to becoming a revered jazz elder.

So, with hindsight, these eight wonderful numbers take on all kinds of special significance. And to think we owe it all to the Cold War.

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