Friday, October 02, 2020

LP Review: Thelonious Monk - Palo Alto

Thelonious Monk
Palo Alto

After a delay of a few months that almost seemed to put the release in jeopardy, it's finally here!

The story of Palo Alto runs the risk of overshadowing the music that came about through this unique turn of events. Most Monk fans know the tale but it bears repeating. It all started with a teenager and a vision. That teen was Danny Scher, who was a senior at Palo Alto High School in the fall of 1968. A jazz fan, he had already brought Vince Guaraldi, Jon Hendricks and Cal Tjader to Paly for concerts that benefited the school's International Club. Through good connections and luck, he contacted Jules Columby, Monk's manager, and secured a date for his hero. Then he started promoting the show. 

The fall of '68 was not a bright time for America, which was reeling after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, as well as the chaos that erupted at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. (The more things change....) The predominantly African-American neighborhood East Palo Alto was trying get their name changed to Nairobi to instill a sense of pride in the community. The residents of Palo Alto proper fell on the liberal side but it still didn't seem like the typical place where you'd find Thelonious Monk So when Scher ventured into of East Palo Alto to put up flyers, the cops told him to stay away and the residents wondered if this kid was serious.

Scher was serious and what happened next is almost something out of a Frank Capra film. When the budding concert promoter reached Monk at San Francisco's Jazz Workshop a few days before the Paly gig was to occur, Monk said he knew nothing about the show. Columby never returned a signed contract to Scher. Monk, who wasn't in the greatest physical shape, could have just hung up and crushed a young kid's dreams. But somehow they came to an agreement. Scher told him that his older brother would whisk the band from San Francisco to Palo Alto for the afternoon gig, getting them back for their Jazz Workshop set that night. 

And he did. The audience, most of which was lined up in the Paly parking lot and most of them coming from East Palo Alto, paid for tickets as soon as they saw the group pull up in the Scher station wagon, with Larry Gales' bass sticking out of the back. Danny Scher and Monk, whose record label was trying to rebrand him in hopes of reaching a younger market, brought two communities together for the night.

It's a great story but it doesn't answer the question - How is the music? Numerous live Monk sets continue to surface from the '60s, with the pianist leading a quartet, usually with tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse and a few different bassists and drummers that appeared on his Columbia albums. They're all good, but often seem interchangeable, with a limited setlist. Monk at the time was criticized as being predictable and it wasn't always incorrect. 

It's October 27. 1968 and the quartet is on fire. Monk, Rouse, Gales and Ben Riley play like they realize the once-in-a-lifetime series of events that transpired. A now-unknown janitor recorded the show, with a mix that pushes up the rhythm section in a manner we're not used to hearing from a Monk quartet. The sound quality puts Gales in the driver's seat. He takes lengthy, inspired solos in "Well, You Needn't" and "Blue Monk," using a bow in the former, which is rare since Monk apparently disliked arco solos. 

Monk draws on some of his signature solo licks, playing with the rhythm and utilizing open space. But he spends just as much time moving beyond his comfort zone and digging deeper. The transition from theme to first chorus in his solo version of "Don't Blame Me" possesses a real bounce where his right hand digs into a melody completely independent from the stride he's playing in the left hand, even as both figures complement each other.

The whole set lasts roughly 45 minutes. Rather than signing off with a snatch of "Epistrophy," the group digs in for a few choruses. With no time for a real encore, Monk plays the theme of "I Love You Sweetheart Of All My Dreams," ending with a gorgeously dissonant bang on the keys. Before things fade out, we get to hear him quickly explain why need to get going.

Palo Alto, the first time Monk has ever appeared on the Impulse! label, is packaged exquisitely with a gatefold sleeve, booklet with liner notes by Scher and Monk biographer Robin D. G. Kelley., along with a reproduction of the concert's original program (complete with the sold adverts) and poster. My vinyl had a small warp in it, though it played without skipping or making noise. As far as unearthed Monk concerts go, this one ranks up there Live at Carnegie Hall

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