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Brilliant Corners is a seminal 1956 recording from Thelonoius Monk, his first disc of original material on the Riverside label. The special attraction this time around is the SACD remastering. I'll touch on that later. For now, let's concentrate on the music. And what music!
This may not be Monk's masterpiece – I fancy that honor must now go to the newly discovered Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall [Blue Note 9463351742] but it is indispensable for Monk aficionado and for any modern jazz fan willing to listen repeatedly to music which may at first hearing appear user-hostile. Monk tends to polarize his listeners more than any other artist of his time. Me – I'm smitten. While I can admire Art Tatum, I don't really enjoy him for all his extreme virtuosity. But Monk hits the spot for me, the very essence of cool, although I will admit he doesn't do so 100 percent of the time.
There are two facets on display here – Monk the composer and Monk the pianist. As a composer there has never been anyone like him while as a pianist... well I'd have to say the same again. But Monk playing Monk is a hit right out of the park in terms of quirkiness, originality, a challenge to his fellow musicians, and a challenge to us the listeners.
The title track "Brilliant Corners" proved an enormous trial to the performers, requiring over two dozen takes, with the best bits stitched together into 7m42s of rapidly morphing time signatures, splendid unison playing from the saxes of Sonny Rollins and Ernie Henry, astonishing chord progressions and punctuation from Monk against the rock solid rhythm section of Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach.
The extended swing-blues number "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are" lets you hear all the musicians in their groove, enjoying themselves. The highlight is Pettiford walking bass solo, so natural, subtle, tuneful and alert to all the possibility of Monk's composition. Monk's sparse pianism contributes greatly during the other musicians' solos. Monk has one hand on the piano and the other on a celeste in the ballad "Pannonica." This one doesn't work for me, although you may just love it.
Monk solos on "I Surrender, Dear," the only number here he didn't pen. He sounds like a pianist with a stutter, fracturing the tune and never letting it flow the way Errol Garner or Oscar Peterson might. This just serves to heighten the tension and keeps us on the edge of our seats, willing him on. The last two bars, where you might expect the tune to finally resolve, are splendidly original and leave you hanging mid air. Just wonderful – play it again and again.
The disc closes with the familiar "Bemsha Swing," the third time he had recorded it. This is the feel-good track and features Clerk Terry and Paul Chambers to replace the absent Henry and Pettiford. No extended solos this time, but Rollins plays superbly, matched by a surprisingly focused Terry. The highlight here is the Syncopated timpani playing throughout and Roaches duets with Monk and Chambers in turn. Killer!
I've been comparing this mono SACD to the standard Riverside CD. Both are a bit thin and lack warmth but the SACD does two things much better than the CD, and the CD layer on this hybrid disc. First, Pettiford's bass is much clearer and more tuneful, remarkable in fact for the vintage. Second, the percussion loses its harsh even brittle edge and becomes much more resolved. This is never going to be a demonstration disc, but even if you have the CD I'd recommend forking out for this one. If you don't have Brilliant Corners in your collection at all, well it simply isn't complete yet. An essential recording.