Thelonious Monk: Black Lion Sessions (1971) Vinyl Shoot Out

Black Lion Shoot Out

One chilly November day in 1971, Monk found himself in  LJC’s home town, London, accompanied by another jazz-elder, Art Blakey, and Al McKibbon on bass, to record a session for Alan Bates’ Black Lion label. In the Chappell Studios he recorded many of the tunes he had spent much of his life playing, and it was to be one of his last recordings, the summation of a life’s musical work.

From the same source tapes, two pressings that throw light on the different musical experience that results from different engineering decisions. First up the Mosiac, then  the “original” 1973 Black Lion release (one of three (possibly two)  Black Lion LPs from that session), recording engineer Richard Timperley. Michael Cuscuna chose Rudy Van Gelder as mastering engineer. Can RVG’s master touch breathe new life into the original recording? Was Van Gelder right to opt for a mono mix, or the original’s decision to stick the drums out on the right, and nowhere else to go in stereo?   You decide. Interested in all opinions.

Both in glorious 320kbps MP3 recorded from “Big Sister”. The target track, Misterioso, one of Monk’s most delicious compositions, delicious , it should be said, like all the others, high in musical calories.


Selection 1: Misterioso: Mosaic Complete Black Lion and Vogue Sessions



Thelonious Monk (piano) Al McKibbon (bass) Art Blakey (drums) recorded at Chappell Studios, London, England, November 15, 1971


Monk’s last studio recordings as leader, paired in this intriguing four LP set with one of his earliest sessions – not well served on vinyl, the Paris Swing (subsequently Vogue) session from 1954. This collection therefore neatly sweeps up the few recordings which fell outside his Blue Note, Riverside and Columbia legacy, contrasting the young devil Monk with  the old devil Monk.

Vinyl: Mosaic MR4-112

Surprise on opening the box –  a Van Gelder re-master! The eponymous EMI Ron McMaster elbowed to one side by Cuscuna,  to allow Van Gelder the opportunity to show how it’s done. In an unexpected artistic choice, RVG opts for a mono mix. No indication when this box set was produced but the excellent Mosaic booklet offers one possibility, with liner notes attributed to 1985. One can safely say this wasn’t one Rudy  remastered for CD and transferred to vinyl like some of those Japanese modern Toshiba “RVG Remastered” pressings.



2: Original release: Black Lion, 1973


Selection 2: Misterioso – Black Lion (1973 release)


Philips UK pressing, stereo.  That cover: only one man can get away with a black leather cap topped with a cherry cupcake and still look cool. But it just wouldn’t look right without the cigarette smoke trails drifting up photogenically in a photographically darkened studio. Oddly it actually captures the physical presence of Monk in a way that the more clinical black and white Mosiac cover doesn’t.  Between the two of them they could each have done a better job.



Collectors Corner

The Mosaic box set came via Ebay, only three bidders, shame on you, British jazz fans.  Clearly not the subject of collector-lust in Japan, as no sign of Tokyo Jazz Collector who I am sure is haunting current European auctions of late. Interplanetary Postage can be a bit fierce with Mosiac box sets.

I have had the Black Lion issue for some time, and I felt  the audio quality was a bit of a  let down whenever I played it. Couldn’t put my finger on why, but the Van Gelder remaster puts it back into a proper perspective. The Mosaic bonus addition of the 1954  Paris Sessions offers an interesting longitudinal perspective on the genius that was Monk.

All in all, a welcome addition to the burgeoning “M” shelf of the LJC Collection. Mingus, Monk, Mobley, Morgan, Mulligan, Murray … why “M”?

Some people will no doubt prefer the original Black Lion presentation, especially if I voice a preference for the Mosaic. The internet is like that. Oi, LJC, I disagree. Fine with me.


28 thoughts on “Thelonious Monk: Black Lion Sessions (1971) Vinyl Shoot Out

  1. LJC, you’re quite right in voicing a preference for the Mosaic set. You are also right in saying “One can safely say this wasn’t one Rudy remastered for CD and transferred to vinyl like some of those Japanese modern Toshiba “RVG Remastered” pressings.”
    But still there is one question that remains to be answered. The liner notes say: “Tape transfers and remix: Malcolm Addey.” I am very sure that both vinyl and CD are based on the same DIGITAL transfer, as is the case with all Mosaic re-issues. It would have been foolish to do otherwise, because an additional generation of analog tape would have inevitably lessened the sound quality you find in the original master tape. With Mosaic boxed sets, I have always preferred the CD version because I see no reason why the vinyl should sound any better. As always, I am ready to take advice and I would be very grateful to anyone who can prove that the vinyl was mastered by Mr RVG from the original master tape, with no intermediate analog tape involved. Only in this case, I think, could we accept the argument that the vinyl is “better”.


    • Michael Cuscuna:
      “My personal favorite is the Thelonious Monk collection. When the idea of Mosaic was first born, my first thought was to completely delve into all of the Monk sessions, in hopes of finding enough material to justify a boxed set.

      The first step was to find the original discs on which the sessions were recorded, wash them and then retransfer them with today’s technology. The result was cleaner and more natural sounding tapes that really bring out the true texture and overtones of the music like no Blue Note album issue ever did. And those original discs were filled with some amazing alternate takes, including a most astonishing take of “Well, You Needn’t” on which Monk totally alters the composition. So the Monk set was born. I will forever regret that it was not finished before Monk died. I would have wanted him to see it.”

      If Cuscuna is to believed, and why not, the Monk Mosaic is the fruit of transfers from original (analog) vinyl disc to tape, which were then the source for remastering back to disc. Well, at least they washed the “original discs” first. All this at the end of 1982, the same year as the first commercial appearance of the compact disc.

      To be honest, I can’t understand why Cuscuna would transfer from original vinyl discs when he was the only man on the planet with access to the Blue Note vaults and trusted with original tapes. Perhaps he doesn’t mean the vinyl discs, but from the original masters? He reads like he thinks he understands the process, but may be the unicorn-horn and fairy dust applied by Van Gelder worked in some different way, not the way Cuscuna tells it. I confess to be confused as to what Mosaic actually did here.

      I have the impression Cuscuna worked with original tapes for a lot of the United Artists beautiful-sounding twofers – mid ’70s – because those tapes were discovered by him in the Blue Note vaults. Why wouldn’t you? But then again may be not.

      It’s tough being a guru, I tell you.


      • I received a message from Michael Cuscuna himself (!) just a few minutes ago, in response to a request I had sent to Mosaic Records this morning:

        The LP was from second-generation analog sources. When that set was first made, digital recording was very rare.”

        I, too, believe that he means the original masters, which would be “second generation”. Given these circumstances, I must admit that the Mosaic vinyl is all-analog, albeit second generation. Now if the CD version was made on the basis of the master TAPES, I personally would probably prefer it to the vinyl. But I wouldn’t blame anybody for disagreeing. Especially one who is seen as a guru by quite a number of people. It’s tough, and it’s fun at the same time, right?


      • The original discs that Cuscuna is referring to in the quoted passage are, if I’m not mistaken, the 16-inch acetate masters that the early Monk sessions were recorded on (and later used for the Mosaic set The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk). So he’s not talking about this Black Lion/Vogue set.


        • Oh – that adds a new perspective. It now seems very likely that in his quick reply to my question Michael Cuscuna was really talking about second-generation tape. More tape hiss, more flutter, less dynamics. Another reason for me to prefer CD if it’s really based on the master tape. BTW I am not listening to the Mosaic version but to a stereo CD.


  2. I agree that there were two LPs but three CDs on Black Lion. Incidentally – am I right in remembering that the Mosaic set omitted a track?


    • Interesting. This would contradict Michael Cuscuna’s liner notes (see above). If you mean “Hackensack”, it was not on the original LP but does appear on the Mosaic set.


  3. I’m voting for the Black Lion too. Once you get past the drums being off to the right you get a better sense of each musician’s individual contribution to the piece. Monk especially, belongs in a setting like this and his style seems to shine more brightly imho. Oh did anyone mention the bass? I barely noticed Al on the Mosaic. Just sayin’.


    • It’s a bitch, this one.
      In my opinion RVG has brought the piano out much better in the Mosiac, but at the expense of the bass compared with the Black Lion.
      I don’t care for the drums pulled out in a listening room-setting in stereo – PC speakers a metre apart are perhaps something else. But this is a Monk album, not a Blakey album.
      Bottom line, each sound “different”.What matters most, however, is the rendition of Monk, and I think Rudy’s Mosiac does that better.


  4. Wow, you definitely hear more bass and a more complete sound in the Black Lion, though before comparing I really liked how the Monk’s piano sounded in the Mosaic. Always very interesting to hear your records comparisons. Thanks!


  5. Back in the dark ages (!962, to be exact), I had the distinct pleasure of working backstage at the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival while Monk prepared to go onstage.
    Two things stood out: Monk was treated with much respect by the other musicians, and he had a dry sense of humor. An obnoxious publicity man (redundant?) threw a tantrum and picked up the glass container from a water cooler, scattering the contents on the ground.
    Monk, sitting near-by, was practicing on a folding keyboard until he was to go on.
    He looked down at the watery mess, then at the twit who had made the mess. His comment was: “Now pick that up”.


  6. “That cover: only one man can get away with a black leather cap topped with a cherry cupcake and still look cool”

    Nearly spit my coffee out reading that 🙂

    My preference is for the Mosaic.


  7. I saw Monk play live in Birmingham (England), sitting on the front row (I was on the front row, not Monk). He was a scary individual, hardly acknowledging the audience and, when he did, the temptation to look down when your eyes met was difficult to resist. Some of his black contemporaries (Miles, Diz etc.) had a similar manner. Many suffered from racism, especially in the Southern states – and from the NYPD – so I suppose it’s inevitable they appeared to have a ‘chip’ on their shoulders when they played to predominantly white audiences. When I see these posts I realize I’m one of the fortunate few (becoming fewer!) who were fortunate to see such talent in the flesh. I saw just about everyone (except Bird).


    • Fortunate indeed, John, polar opposite experience in my case. I have never seen any of the greats, except one – a recent Herbie Hancock festival appearance (huge disappointment) I guess that is why I “obsess” over a musicians-in-the-room experience, something I missed out on.


    • well, monk allegedly suffered from bipolar disorder (it wasn’t called that way back then) and his later years were the worst. you maybe caught him in down mode.
      i’m old and lucky enough too, to have seen a few of the old masters: miles, evans, getz, baker, pepper, rollins – and they never disappointed me. hancock is another story. last time i saw him (joni letters tour at vienne jazz festival) he obviously enjoyed too much french wine and the first hour of his gig was embarassing. the second half was just boring 😉


  8. LJC, You refer to “three Black Lion LPs from that session”. Just out of interest, what was the third? I cash account for THE MAN I LOVE and SOMETHING IN BLUE (I have both of those ‘Lions’ and to my ears they sound terrific), but I can’t for the life of me identify a third Lion issue from the London sessions.

    Anyway, the music: a friend (and jazz dealer) recently described them to me as “the last flowering of Monk before the great silence descended” and I still think of that description every time I play one of the records — their overall quality and lightness of mood (as someone else has said: nothing sounds as good as Monk in a happy mood does) make the sessions all the more poignant.


    • Reference to “London Sessions Volume 3” Alun
      Being a bit slapdash I jumped to an assumption there are three volumes, though it may be a discographers reference regarding another format.

      The monk discography project ends with 1971, so I likewise assumed Cuscuna’s word regarding “last recordings” was gospel – his research is a lot less slapdash than mine, but anything’s possible, I claim no authority on the matter.


      • As I said to marl bank, I’m pretty sure the reference to “last recordings” is correct if one qualifies it with “studio” recordings… I think the London sessions were the last full studio sessions Monk undertook — certainly I think that is how Cook/Morton refer to them too… But it does leave a bit of a puzzle about whether or not there was a third Black Lion LP. I’m not sure — but i have asked a man who may know..


      • I think there are three CDs but only two Black Lion LPs – SOMETHING IN BLUE and THE MAN I LOVE…according to my sources, anyway.


  9. ‘The Man I Love’ was one of the first Monk LPs I ever bought – UK Black Lion pressing but with a trendy purple/blue day-glo-ish sillouette of Monk. Second issue circa 1974 ? Very 1970s.

    Monk has been quite well served by Mosaic Records and I have a vinyl copy of the ‘Complete It Club’ in the mail. On special offer on their site until the end of the month.


  10. My thoughts are that the RVG edition hangs together better with a more unified sound – perhaps precisely as a result of being mono. The Black Lion however captures the individual instruments more realistically – particularly the bass.which is much bigger and more rounded. Is there a slightly different pitch? I’m not sure.


  11. My first exposure to Monk was the 1st album from the London sessions ‘Something in Blue’ with identical liner photo, I quickly moved onto his BN,Prestige & Riverside recordings. In retrospect the 71 sessions produced some of his most powerful and personal work, try listening to the title track, and, of course, Blakey is perfect for Monk.


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