We Americans have so much to thank the Europeans for - appreciating the creativity of great jazz musicians in certainly one of them. So many of these great artists were sadly ignored by mainstream audiences in the US, but adored in Europe - one such spirit was Thelonious Monk, whose contributions to the genre cannot be over-emphasized. As a result of jazz being relegated to small clubs and limited exposure for too many years, there are preciously few video documents of these players at work - the folks who put the Jazz Icons series together have done a great service to jazz fans, and to American musical history, by making this DVD and the others they have produced available - and at extremely reasonable prices.
The two sets featured here were shot during Monk's European tour of 1966 - three tunes in Norway (15 April) and three tunes in Denmark (17 April). Due to the technical difficulties at the time of filming for television - the bulk of the cameras used at the time, as well as the lighting requirements - these shows were done without an audience present, but the interplay between the combo members doesn't seem to suffer from any lack of engagement with a crowd. The group is Monk's classic quartet of the period, one of the best ensembles he assembled - Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, Larry Gales on double-bass and Ben Riley on drums. Everyone gets a chance to shine - Charlie Rouse's solos are brilliant, underscoring the fact that his work has been criminally underrated over the years by too many critics; Larry Gales is rock-steady on the bass, creating a firm foundation for the ensemble and spinning out solo work that is incredibly melodic and inventive; Ben Riley, along with Gales, is well up to the challenge of being the heartbeat of Monk's music, which many players over the years have found difficult. Riley's performance in Norway is especially noteworthy considering (according to the liner notes) that his drumset was temporarily lost by the airline, and he had to play on a kit thrown together at the last minute, consisting only of a bass drum, a snare, one cymbal and a high-hat. He rose to the occasion admirably, playing with both sticks and brushes, and his solos sound creative and fresh.
The six tunes include two versions of `Lulu's back in town' (each a unique performance); three Monk originals, `Blue Monk', `Round midnight' and `Epistrophy', which over the years became his signature / theme song; and an incredibly beautiful solo rendering of `Don't blame me'. The camera work is stellar - there is no wild panning, with the focus as it should be on whichever musicians was taking the lead at the moment. Monk's playing style - always noted as unusual, but perfectly suited to his compositions and `sound' - is given a good bit of close-up camera work, which is a special treat for both long-time fans and newcomers to his music. The picture is sharp, with very little degeneration or damage - no mean feat, especially when one considers that this material was filmed four decades ago. The audio quality is superb as well - mono, of course, but full-bodied and crystal-clear. There are extensive notes included, written by Don Sickler (who has worked closely with Monk's family and knows his music well), giving informative background information on the various musicians as well as Monk's music; there's also a short 'forward' by the pianist's son, T. S. Monk, that is touching and revelatory.
This collection - and the Jazz Icons series as a whole - is an invaluable treasure for jazz fans. It's a great opportunity to not only hear, but visually witness great artists (and in Monk's case, a true genius) at work, changing the course of musical history before our eyes.