By Jemiah Jefferson
It must have been a thrill for audiences in 1958 to imagine that the performances they witnessed in smoky nightclubs could be recorded and released as brilliant record albums to be savored and studied at home by those less lucky than they. I doubt that many of them could have imagined that more than fifty years later, those same performances would be captured on a shiny silver disk, played back by a laser beam, and savored and studied just as avidly. It’s also possible that the audience listening to what would be titled Misteriso, the live performance by the Thelonious Monk Quartet at the Five Spot Café in New York had no idea of future audiences or listening technologies at all, being entirely too occupied in experiencing the delights of a genius at the peak of his abilities.
Above all, Monk’s music is fun, sexy, brainy, engaging, and utterly of the present, whatever that present might be. Unlike some of the other masters of the bop style of jazz, this is not a time capsule or a nostalgia piece (unless you happened to be there, of course); this is music so ahead of its time that it remains utterly fresh and innovative.
This remastered release of an album originally published by Riverside Records is a testament to how flawlessly Monk was a master of “riffs,” not only composing perfectly hummable snippets of tunes, but performing them with a constantly evolving style and approach. As the lavish liner notes point out, almost all of the songs featured here were written more than ten years before this recording was made. With the exception of the pleasantly lackadaisical “Blues Five Spot,” improvised during Monk’s six-month residency at that club, and a startlingly melancholy take on “Just a Gigolo,” these were cuts that by all ordinary reckoning should have been flogged to death by then. But Monk made them into standards, the better to further improvise upon and seek possibilities within.
The musicians in this quartet—Johnny Griffin on tenor saxophone, Roy Haynes on drums, and Ahmed Abdul-Malik—play sensitively and brilliantly enough that almost any of them could have been the featured lead (check out that fat drum solo in “Blues Five Spot”!), and Monk happily sits back and lets them shine, playing his piano with his iconoclastic flat-fingered, seemingly sloppy style. He only intends to let accidents become beautiful features that expand the humanity and sonic possibility of the tunes.
With its amazing approach blending blues and the softer, warmer side of hard bop, a jazz newbie could do a lot worse than this collection. With some of Monk’s most deservedly famous standards “Evidence,” “‘Round Midnight,” and the “Bye-Ya/Epistrophy” medley rounding out the Five Spot set, at the end of this collection the greatest urge is to start again from the beginning and listen to it over again. It’s easy to listen to the same Thelonious Monk album all day long, hearing something new in every moment; it is because of this relentless innovation that I hesitate to call this album a “classic.” This music is still new.
The remastered reissue of Misterioso is available now from Concord Music Group’s Original Jazz Classics series and can be ordered from their website.