Thelonious Monk: Alone in San Francisco ( 1959) Riverside


Selection: Blue Monk (Monk)


Thelonious Monk (piano) live in San Francisco, CA, October 20 and 21, 1959.


Another musical journey, from one extreme to the other, from Big Band to solo.

Alone. One of the musical areas I have felt uncomfortable with is a solo instrument for forty minutes. Steve Lacy solo soprano sax for forty minutes? I turned down a copy of that recently – file under “too challenging”. If Big Band is too big, is solo too small?

As a result I have overlooked artists solo albums, including, foolishly, Monk. Big mistake. Solo Monk is extraordinary. The man has an orchestra flowing through his fingers, tunes pouring out of his head  There no need for an accompanying rhythm section, it’s already there – a rollercoaster of rhythm, melody and harmony all in one. It is not “sparse”, it is intoxicating. In some way it is more interesting not to have accompaniment – you can focus uninterruptedly on Monk’s music.

The tunes are all familiar but they always sound fresh and with Monk, you are never sure exactly which notes will come next, as he devils with the tune. At one point I had to check whether it was Monk’s feet stomping the beat or my own.

The Cover

It’s a great cover design – and one to add to the Monk hat collection. The cover’s thick card and dimpled gloss laminated finish is of a weight and quality rarely seen outside of Blue Notes of a certain period, confirmed when I noted with little surprise it dated from 1959. I read somewhere our friends in Tokyo, the Sawano Brothers, had put back into service a Fifties colour printing press to provide more authentic period finish to their repros, as modern technology – just like in audio – seem unable to recreate it. It was lost later Sixties, when cover manufacturing produced a product less prone to splitting (and instead came unglued, pushing sales of Bostick and Sellotape through the roof)  All the more remarkable for being an Interdisk European pressing by the Dutch Philips plant.

Cover quality is a good shortcut to weeding out modern reissues from vintage pressings in a crate. You just know when you are holding a dull-finish thin cover, which shouts “reissue!” The only exception I have seen is US Contemporary, some of whose vintage covers are a badly-fitting thin paper paste-up. Never understood the false economy, given the quality of what was within, but perhaps someone took the view these things were not expected to last fifty years.

Vinyl: Riverside RLP 312 mono UK release pressed by Philips (Holland).

A few of my American Riversides are a little more noisy than I would expect, for reasons I feel related to manufacture rather than handling, and do not measure up to the quality of some of the other labels like Columbia, Blue Note and Prestige. Some Riverside’s were pressed on the West Coast, which may be connected. Whatever the reason, Riverside is a label where I am generally more happy with UK/European Interdisk editions, most pressed early on by Decca and later by Philips. With Philips it is a lottery whether you get British or Dutch origin but both are solidly engineered and clean pressings that sound fresh and lively.



Collectors Corner

Source: Central London record shop with handy fruit and vegetable market nearby, so the record went home with some nice ripe figs and a scoop of red pointed peppers. Not that you need to know these things, but there is more to life than record collecting. Not a lot, mind you.

Readers recommendations:

LJC-superbAs regards solo albums, are there any titles you can recommend to a recovering solo-phobic? Piano is an easy one, as it can deliver complexity other instruments would struggle to match, but was it a mistake to pass up on that solo Steve Lacy? No cheating with duets or multi-tracking, just a single instrument, alone. Over to you.

Postscript: Going Dutch

LJC reader Cristian has a copy of Monk Alone in SF, also a Dutch Philips pressing, but many interesting differences, including what appears to be an original US cover.  He kindly sent me photos, which I have put side by side. Can you spot the differences?



Liner Notes:


Cristian’s liner notes have the “missing” Monk Photo, Bwhaaa!


31 thoughts on “Thelonious Monk: Alone in San Francisco ( 1959) Riverside

  1. LJC, on your tip I picked up this record. Listening to it now – a very nice stereo Riverside Orpehum pressing. Bob D put it best when talking about the ambiance of this stereo LP…just gorgeous and I’ll certainly be adding more solo albums soon.

    The only other jazz solo album I have at the moment is “Brubeck plays Brubeck” which is good but I don’t put it in the same league with this one. I do have a solo classical guitarist playing an adaptation of “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Now THAT you really need to be in the right mood for….much easier to get in ‘Monk’s Mood’ (yes I went there)!

  2. What about some good old blues guitar solo? Mance Lipscomb and his album Trouble in Mind , recorded in 1961, is quite something…..

  3. There seems to be more than one Netherlands MONO pressing of this album out there. I found one today, but the label has a slightly different color (a lighter blue than yours, with a slight magentaish touch and silver lettering). The label is smooth-textured. The deadwax inscriptions indicate that it ia pressed from the same stampers as a first pressings.

    The interesting thing is that the cover is the original mono U.S. cover, with another photo of Monk on the back, whereas yours only has a blank space where the photo should be. Can send you a photo of the label if you want to.


    • Interested in a photo of the label AND the back cover with the “missing” photo.

      As best I understand, Philips made a decision whether to press in Holland or UK, according to capacity. Nothing wrong with either, just the usual variation from first to last copy.

      I have never understood how to read the other bits of Philips matrix (country codes we all know). How do you read them? Short tutorial requested!

  4. Plenty of great solo Piano out there. Solo reeds are a bit more difficult, although I generally like most of Steve Lacy’s work.

    I have a few old US Riversides, and generally like the sound very much. The noise may have to do with the stylus. Old Mono’s play better with a mono cartridge and stylus.

    Great album!

  5. Excellent record of world greatest jazz pianist and composer.

    If interested in Monk biography and life in NYC during those years, please read:
    Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

    a 600 pages book written by Robin D.K. Kelley Excellent story!

  6. THere isn’t any solo Monk that isn’t worth having, I don’t think….but solo recordings of other instruments do often need treating with some caution. Fortunately, there’s bags of good — and a lot of great — solo piano out there. Paul Bley, Marilyn Crispell, Cecil Taylor, Mal Waldron, Stan Tracey, Jaki Byard, Randy Weston, Howard Riley, Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibrahim….something for everyone (even if you tire of or don’t especially like Jarrett’s monumentalism and falsetto keening, which I have to be in the right mood for, I must say….)

  7. I just have to put a shout out for Thelonious Himself, which is solo apart from the one track with Coltrane and Ware.
    The version of ‘April In Paris’ may well be my favourite piece of music ever (depending on the day!)
    Keith Jarrett’s ‘The Melody At Night With You’ is also an astounding solo piano recording – though from the late 90s only available on CD. Worth it for a stunning take on ‘I Loves You Porgy’, which I suppose takes us back to Bill Potts.

    • Dean, Do you know the version on the album MONK? It starts like a solo track, quite beautiful, but then a minute or two in the rest of the quartet comes in — and it always sends a shiver down my spine because somehow the image of them standing there in the gloom of the studio waiting for Monk to give the nod is incredibly strong. And Charlie Rouse plays to break your heart.

  8. Monk. Solo. Alone. Whatever. As I’ve stated before I’m a sucker for Monk’s work and this one, too, is an absolute must have. I can’t think of any other instrument that I’d like to hear in a solo setting; I can’t imagine listening to 40 minutes of just a sax, or a flute or drums, but piano is always good and not only played by Monk, ’cause Bud Powell is also a joy to listen to. Feet on the table and a Cuban cigar in handy 😉

  9. If you want more of the same (brilliant) solo Monk, I would recommend the 1971 London sessions (The London Collection, Black Lion).

    • Eduard — I hope you see this. Your mention of this intrigued me because I had never previously considered buying it — then the other day I found a copy of the 1972 issue of SOMETHING IN BLUE, which as far as I can make out was Black Lion’s original issue of *some* of the 1971 sessions — actually Monk’s last full recording session, I believe. Far from being a spent force, Monk is wonderful and so too are Blakey and Al McKibbon — but it is Monk who truly shines and his piano is superbly recorded.

      I am right in thinking, am I, that the Analog Productions/ORG Music 180gm reissue of THE LONDON COLLECTION VOL 1 is in fact the solo recordings from the mammoth 1971 session?

      • You’re right, Alun. I’ve heard of the Analog Productions reissue, though I only have the Black Lion CD. Excellent sound, just as you say.

  10. “The man has an orchestra flowing through his fingers, tunes pouring out of his head There no need for an accompanying rhythm section, its already there – a rollercoaster of rhythm, melody and harmony all in one. It is not “sparse”, it is intoxicating”

    Yep. That about says it all. Nothing to add, nothing to subtract.

    One little caveat, Andy. I don’t share your disdain for the American Riversides. It all depends on the batch, vinyl quality, pressing facility and a host of other factors. Some Riversides (notably Bill Evans) are to die for (not from).. European pressings may be higher grade and devoid of surface noise, but some of them appear to be suffering mildly from the “compressed high frequency” syndrome.

    As for the Monk alone in Frisco, I prefer my original stereo Riverside to my original Riverside mono by a galactic margin. This one truly is a must-have stereo for it’s amazing ambiance and feeling of space (mono is not bad, but can’t really hold the candle to the extraordinary stereo).

    This is easily, hands-down, a top-10 Monk (I would even dare say: top-5). right up there with Monk Plays Ellington, Monk’s Music, Brilliant Corners and 5 x Monk x 5, (on Riverside). Genius of Modern Music vols. 1&2 (on Blue Note), Monk & Rollins (on Prestige), Monk & Coltrane (on Jazzland), Criss-Cross (on Columbia), Monk & Coltrane at Carnegie Hall.

    • Jarrett went up in my estimation following the infamous “Umbria Perugia Jazz Festival incident”.

      “I do not speak Italian,” Jarrett told the audience in Perugia, “so someone who speaks English tell all these assholes with cameras to turn them fucking off right now.”

      Most people seemed to agree with the compulsive camera phone filmers, My view is why, given the choice, would you prefer film an event over experiencing it. We are into meta-reality?

  11. Gary Burton has a good one, ‘Alone at Last’ from 1972. He does play both vibraphone and piano, so it’s a bit varied. It includes a great version of Chega de Saudade.

  12. Thanks LJC for the recommendation on the solo Monk album. I think I was too quick to judgement that solo albums would be tough for me to make it through just as you felt. I’ll have to look for this one.

    I have a US Riverside pressing (mentioned on a prior post) of “Mulligan Meets Monk.” It had the telltale patent to show it was pressed at Researchcraft and I have to say it actually sounds quite good! I wasn’t sure what to expect with it but was pleasantly surprised.

  13. Keeping in a piano vain, you could try McCoy Tyner – Echoes of a Friend (Milestone M-9055). It’s a nice tribute to John Coltrane.

    The Monk is amazing though.

  14. Monk alone has at least two other worthy solo records, including “Solo Monk” on Columbia (CL 2349), which is not only a lovely record, but boasts tremendous cover art (even for a Monk record).

    Mingus Plays Piano, on Impulse (A-60), is an interesting record.

    I think you did well to pass on the Steve Lacy solo record – to me, that sounds . . . difficult.

      • well, some outstanding Lacy records: Epistrophy; Disposability; Trickles; The Straight Horn of; Evidence (with Don Cherry). And many of his collaborations with Mal Waldron. My favourite Soprano Sax player.

        • I wasn’t intending to diss Lacy, I have many albums with Lacy in my current listening pile. His stints with Waldron are indeed excellent. Rather, the concept of extended solo on soprano sax, though I realised when I wrote it I was sailing close to the wind on later Mr Coltrane. In a field bursting with tenors and altos, Lacy makes quite a refreshing point of difference. May be I should have tried the solo, you never know.

        • I never claimed that Lacy didn’t have outstanding recordings (typically due to the presence of some remarkable players and/or Mr. RVG), or, for that matter, that he was not a competent musician, only that a tiny little bit of his screechy and abrasive tone goes a long way. What can I say? I guess I just wasn’t genetically predisposed to love 45 minutes of sheer dissonance (compared to some Lacy solos I was rather unfortunate to hear, Albert Ayler sounds like Boston Pops performing Kenny G’s transcription of Mantovani’s Greatest Hits). He seems to possess that mocking, combative, in-your-face, of-course-you-don’t-like-me-hahaha Mark Rothko quality that I still have not developed the ability to appreciate. Granted, some of this “quality” originates in the very nature of Soprano Sax as an instrument, which, to be perfectly honest with you, is probably my LEAST favorite instrument among hundreds of other instruments. I just HATE that sound. It does something really nasty and degrading to my synapses. I am not sure this instrument was ever actually intended to be used in Jazz.

          Some musicians are like nutmeg. A little bit will do the job just fine, thank you very much, A wee bit more is nauseating, hard to digest and gas-inducing. And still a bit more is downright toxic and imminently life-threatening. Yes, as you may have surmised already, Steve Lacy is not in my top-100. In fact, he is not even in my top-1000 (I still have a minor bit of residual self-respect to mind).

          This does not mean that you – or everyone else – should not listen or appreciate the music you enjoy. It merely means that I refuse to listen to what I do not, or what does not stand a reasonable chance that I will ever get to like. It might also mean that, alas, I am a crude and uncultured boor who simply does not grasp the meaning and aesthetic of Jazz and does not stand a chance of ever developing an appreciation for fine and sublime things in life. Like, Steve Lacy soloing his sinuses out for 45 minutes (give or take).

          Um…! Garçon,,,! where is my Ben Webster?

          • Hi Bob – I could have never imagined Lacy could evoke such reactions! I generally find him very pleasant to hear with a great tone and interesting music. Um…! Garcon….! I’ll have some Cecil Taylor please

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