Thelonious Monk created some of the most powerful music ever, regardless of genre. That power underscores an observation: I've never met a person who had a luke-warm or ho-hum opinion about his music. They either love it or hate it.
An artist that elicits that kind of a polarized response makes it hard for the curious. What if the newcomer picks up what is genuinely a bad record? Monk fans are rabid, but few. So if you don't have a Monk fan handy, how do you know what makes a good introduction to his music?
Conventional wisdom says to get "Straight, No Chaser" on Columbia. That IS a great place to start, especially with the remastering job Sony did in 1996. They made a perfect record even better.
The problem that I have with the conventional wisdom is that "Straight" only tells half the story. If you are new to jazz in general or Monk's music in particular, you should check this disc out. It is not only one of Monk's best, but it offers essential insight to jazz music as a whole.
While "Monk's Mood" (with John Coltrane and Wilbur Ware) alone is worth the price of admission, "Functional" and "All Alone" are sadly overlooked. The 22 minutes of Monk working out a solo version of "'Round Midnight," followed by the finished take are vital to understanding how Monk functioned as a composer and arranger. What comes through all the odd chords, phrasing, and tempos is some of the most organic (human) music I've ever heard.
To crib from the tray insert (Dom Cerulli, Down Beat): (five stars) Highly recommended.