Thelonious Monk: Underground (1968) Columbia

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Track Selection: Ugly Beauty (Monk)

Artists

Musicians: Charlie Rouse (ts) Thelonious Monk (p) Larry Gales (b) Ben Riley (d) recorded NYC, December 14, 1967 February 14, 1968; Tim Geelan  engineer,  Teo Macero  producer.

Cover Art: photography:  Horn Grinner Studios; art direction: John Berg, Richard Mantel,

John Berg was art director of Columbia between 1961 and 1985, overseeing notable projects for Chicago, Bob Dylan and Barbara Streisand as well as the famous Bruce Springsteen Born to Run fold out cover. In an interview, Berg said of the Underground cover:

 “On Thelonious Monk’s Underground, a project with photographers Steve Horn and Norman Griner, the title of the album came from a current jazz movement, which I twisted into a version of the French anti-Nazi underground of World War II. An entire set was built and the scene was full of costumed extras. There was no problem with budgets in those days. I won a Grammy for that cover, by the way.”

LJC thinks:  The rise and rise of “art direction”:  big budget “concept” cover art, detached from the musical content. Monk has his eyes fixed on the photographer, rabbit in the headlights, giving away the artifice in a glance. If he had concentrated on playing the piano, casting the viewer as voyeur of a “real” piano-playing resistance fighter, it could have taken it to a different level. But hey, it’s Grammy-award winning. And Niiiice. An early Sixties laminate would have finished it beautifully, but those times had gone, the budget was for art direction, not cover manufacture.

Music

His penultimate studio recording under contract to Columbia (1962-8), following which Monk all but disappeared from the recording scene. Perhaps over-shadowed by its cover art, Underground contains a significant number of new Monk compositions, some of which only appear in recorded form on this album. It was the last Monk album featuring the Thelonious Monk Quartet with Charlie Rouse appearing on only half the tracks. The selection “Ugly Beauty” is the only waltz in Monk’s seventy compositions.

Vinyl: CS 9632 US Columbia two-eye 360 degree sound.

Immediately recognisable for its provocative cover image depicting Monk as a fictitious wartime French Resistance fighter, there is nothing fictitious about Columbia recording, which is of very high calibre. Not quite the same league as the era of six eye, but good,  and in 1968 still comfortably positioned before the decline in vinyl quality. The stereo placement is a lot more balanced than some of the earlier Columbia recordings, which, due to positioning Monk in the left speaker and Rouse in the Centre, come across as a Charlie Rouse record rather than a Monk.

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On a more sinister note, Columbia claim the record “will last as long as mono records played on the same equipment”. Exactly how long do records last? I thought they all last around forty minutes, each time you play them, mono or stereo, but perhaps not.

The liner notes are as surreal as the cover art, and are worth a read. “Take that, you honkie kraut”. That’s two penalty points on his free speech license.

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Collectors Corner

Record from a suburban record store specialising in Sixties rock and pop, like they all do. I had passed by the shop many times and ignored it for the same reason. It was a conversation with my GP, knowing I was something of a jazz vinyl fan, that the shop was recommended. Lo and behold, an interesting collection of records was found. No buried treasure of Blue Note originals, not surprising, but interesting nevertheless, and modestly priced with a fair number of original pressings and everything VG++ or better. Conversation with the owner confirmed he declines any records not in excellent condition, unless they are mega-rare. A very good policy.

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13 thoughts on “Thelonious Monk: Underground (1968) Columbia

  1. Was this cover a preparation for the final insult – the record with Oliver Nelson ? And as for Rouse: he’s usually adequate, but I can’t think of a single track, on any Monk record, where he does anything unexpected. Can anyone recommend a stand-out track by Rouse ?

    • It’s a lame analogy, but you might ask what contribution did the white canvas make to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa? I think of Rouse was a foil to Monk, not a competing performer. Whether Rouse in solo is a positive contribution or not to Monk we could debate.

      Monk is one of the few performers (along with Bill Evans) I can enjoy in solo. There is so much going on, one mind is enough. This contrasts with a Steve Lacy solo performance, where I simply couldn’t get my head around forty minutes of soprano saxophone solo. May be I missed something.

  2. Pingback: Thelonious Monk - Underground « RVJ PREMIUM

  3. UNDERGROUND is a fine Monk set — as long as you remember to knock it off before IN WALKED BUD with its ill-advised scat vocal. I could never understand why Monk didn’t chase Hendricks out of the studio…

  4. many years ago I used to collect all Monk lp’s: then my taste addressed to the revolutionary Monk of the 40’s and 50’s.
    60’s Monk is more elegant,smoother but lacks that sort of fire that had before.
    that’s my personal opinion and I may be wrong but compare older with newer recordings: Brilliant corners cuts them all out.
    in addition I have never liked Charlie Rouse so much.
    most of his Columbia records are very similar, in mood and personnel: for me it’s boring enough.

    • Well, maybe you’re right about Rouse. His tone really isn’t any special and depending on the solo’s lenght may become somewhat monotonous. But he’s a respectable player, anyhow. Just for the sake of siding up a complex mind as Monk’s for so many years he deserves our appraisal. But you’re right – Monk’s Sixties or Seventies are a far cry from Monk’s Forties and Fifties of Blue Note or Riverside fame. Shihab,Donaldson,Rollins,Coltrane,Henry and Dorham are miles ahead of Rouse, Woods, whatever. But really important is that Monk’s Music lives on.Brilliant corners.

  5. Another nice find.
    I think his Columbia LPs are excellent and overlooked because they are less collectible compared to his 50’s BN/Prestige stuff.

  6. Hmmm… We learn something new everyday, don’t we? I hardly dare saying it, but until today I hadn’t heard of this Monk album. Love the cover and, as with everything Monk, I love the track you feature here today. This means that I’m going to chase this one myself, too.

  7. Agree with your assessment of the cover LJC, but top marks for effort. It kicks 50 shades of shit out of so many of todays zero budget, glossy stock photo covers.

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