Review Summary: Monk and Coltrane present a lush, simple sound on this very well done live release.
Anyone who has ever listened to live Jazz will recognize right away that the music is prone to a large quantity of improvisation. The reason being for that is most logically that Jazz musicians are truly one of a kind. Their ability to work with dissonance on their instrument, control dynamics, and change the overall feel of a piece with just a few notes. However Thelonious Monk is especially unique in that he doesn’t need to wander off into fifteen minute jams constantly to get his point across to the audience in a live setting. Along with the company of legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, Live At Carnegie Hall provides a great look into what can be considered the prime of Thelonious Monk’s career.
As I said, the truly unique aspect of this show is that Monk is able to express an array of different emotions, and sonic textures without falling into the trap of having an unnecessarily prolonged jam on each and every song. While I enjoy these extended improvisations when there is a rhyme and reason to them, I feel that some artists lose the actual point of what they are trying to express (in a live setting) when they extend jams well too much and too often. Thankfully, Monk and Coltrane avoid this trap and are still able to make the music on this disc creative and tasteful.
The show promptly kicks off with a number simply entitled “Monk’s Mood”. The song starts out simply enough, with Monk playing some assorted melodies on his piano. The song builds until a beautifully relaxed sax solo from Coltrane enters. Midway through the solo, drummer Shadow Wilson adds his own laid back textures to the song with continues and ends with more melodic lines from Coltrane and Monk. This song, while being a bit slower in tempo than the rest of the CD, is a great representation of the style of jazz exhibited on this album. You won’t hear any extremely dissonant or chaotic solos from Monk and Coltrane, but at the same time the music cannot exactly be considered traditional in a jazz sense either. The music is simply a mix of Monk and Coltrane blending together their own unique styles and creating a wonderful atmosphere without going over the edge.
Tracks such as “Evidence” show just how well Monk and Coltrane can work together with a faster tempo, added now with Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s masterful double bass playing. The highlight being Monk’s outro piano solo and melodies. “Crepuscule With Nellie” is more akin to the opener in its laid back atmosphere, opening piano, and smooth sax lines from Coltrane. Not a highlight of the album but certainly a nice transition into the next song. “Nutty” gets straight down to business, with Monk playing a few notes and then the rest of the band entering. Shadow Wilson’s drumming is surprisingly aggressive for Jazz playing, but then abruptly shifts back to quiet groove. Wilson shows consistently on this song his ability to switch between both styles of drumming at a moment’s notice. The main melody played simultaneously by Monk and Coltrane is one of the most recognizable on the album, and shows how well these two could work together given the opportunity.
The dissonant side of the band is showcased on tracks like “Epistrophy”. Coltrane exhibits a bit of a faster tempo on his lines, while Monk hammers out disjunct piano chords, and Abdul-Malik creates several intricate basslines throughout the song. Truly a highlight of the disc in that it is so unique in the type of setting the band has been creating at this point. And just to reinforce the point I made earlier, we have now been through five songs on the album, and only one has gone over the length of five minutes. That, my friends is what makes Monk and Coltrane two of the best in their respective fields, that they are able to present different moods and atmospheres with a condensed amount of time.
With that said, the length increases with the next two tracks “Bye-Ya”, and “Sweet and Lovely”. “Bye-Ya” features a nice mix of everything we’ve heard on the disc thus far, featuring top notch solos from Monk and Coltrane, as well as letting Abdul-Malik, and Shadow Wilson expand their playing a bit as well. The band is really locked in the groove on this number (as they have been all night). “Sweet and Lovely” is the longest track on the disc, clocking in at just under ten minutes. Perhaps the best showcase of Monk’s piano playing, as the arpeggios roll off his fingers, and the chords are played with such force and confidence. The song shifts over to a jumpy tempo in the later part of the song, refreshing the theme making this song the possible highlight of the album. Lastly, the album closes off with “Blue Monk” which is just the perfect closer to the album. A sweet melody, make this a “feel good” song, and was sure to send the already massively impressed audience home happy.
There is no question that this one of the most accessible Jazz live albums I have ever heard. The short song lengths make this to be beginner friendly to those looking to delve into Jazz music. Not only that, but you get two of the most respected Jazz musicians of all time just getting together and playing beautiful melodies, held down by an extremely qualified rhythm section. While this album isn’t a classic, and won’t present anything new, it without a doubt should be heard by any fan of Jazz to see what Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane were capable of creating in a live setting.