I think sometimes first recordings by important artists get more merit than they deserve-- it's a legend after all, this is their formative material, their early works, etc. And in some respect, there's merit to that, but when you have a pioneering artist like Thelonious Monk, you end up with a large disconnect between the other musicians and the leader. Such is the case on much of "Genius of Modern Music, Volume One". Singles recorded in three sessions during October and November of 1947, these are the first recordings by Thelonious Monk as a leader.
The first session featured Monk with a rhythm section of Gene Ramey (on bass) and Art Blakey (on drums) with three horns-- Idrees Sulieman on trumpet, Danny Quebec West on alto sax, and Billy Smith on tenor sax. Four titles were tackled, only two composed by Monk (two were by Ike Quebec, who helped get Monk signed to Blue Note). The horn players, all largely best known for this session, are fairly clueless and turn out earnest but by and large unexciting performances and force Monk into a rather standard comping role. Comparing his playing to his work behind the horn players in the third session on here, the difference is astounding. But by and large, none of these pieces save "Thelonious", go to any strides to really show Monk off as a songwriter or a musician.
The second session finds Monk in a trio setting with Ramey and Blakey. Here, the real value of these recordings begin as many of the things that make Monk what he is come forth, whether he is tackling standards ("Nice Work If You Can Get It" and "April in Paris" both get readings) or originals (such critical pieces as "Ruby My Dear" and "Well You Needn't"), the work is stunning and the performance is breathtaking.
The last session on here sits somewhere in between these two-- Monk is accompanied by trumpeter George Taitt and alto saxophonist Sahib Shibab along with bassist Bob Paige and Blakey. The results are typically pretty good, with the horns performing spectacularly on the ballads of the session ("Monk's Mood" and the legendary "'Round Midnight") and really digging in on an explosive version of "In Walked Bud". It's really quite unfortunate that these were all recorded for singles because several of the solos just start developing when they have to end (due to limitations in the physical media used for the original release).
This reissue, part of the Rudy Van Gelder edition of remasters on Blue Note, features the best sound these sessions have ever received. Monk would make better recordings as time went on, but these are still quite good. Recommended.