Blue Note Records has announced Thelonious Monk Paris 1969, a fascinating and important late-career document of the legendary jazz pianist and composer in performance with his Quartet at the Salle Pleyel concert hall in Paris, France on December 15, 1969. Beautifully captured on B&W film, the concert also featured a surprise guest appearance from renowned drummer Philly Joe Jones. Also included is a rare on-camera interview with Monk that was conducted by the French bassist Jacques Hess after the concert.
"The 1969 Paris concert captures the power and the undiminished beauty of Monk's music, reminding us that even as his body aged his musical imagination knew no limits," writes Monk scholar Robin Kelley in his liner notes essay. However, Kelley also illuminates what a peculiar and challenging moment 1969 was for the 52-year-old pianist. Monk hadn't achieved true success until the late-50s with his legendary run at the Five Spot CafÉ in New York City with John Coltrane (a band that was brilliantly captured on the lost recording Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall from 1957 which was discovered and released on Blue Note in 2005). By the early-60s Monk's success had peaked when he signed with Columbia Records and was eventually featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in 1964.
However, by 1969, in addition to health issues, Monk's success was beginning to wane with the emergence of rock and the resulting jazz fusion movement. His recording contract with Columbia had just come to end after an ill-advised attempt at marketing him to a younger rock audience. That disappointment was followed by the departure of drummer Ben Riley and bassist Larry Gales from his band which left Monk with two chairs to fill on short notice before his European tour.
Monk eventually found two young musicians - bassist Nate Hygelund and drummer Paris Wright - to fill out the Quartet with his longtime tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. Luckily the inexperienced rhythm section had some time to gel before hitting the stage in Paris with a lengthy engagement in London followed by stops in Germany and Italy. By the time they reached the Pleyel the band was in fine form, which made for a triumphant return for Monk to the very stage he had made his Parisian debut on in 1954 in front of a hostile audience who felt that Monk was too avant-garde. 15 years later the situation could not have been more different with an enthusiastic audience and the concert being broadcast on television.
In addition to rollicking Quartet versions of Monk classics such as "I Mean You," "Straight No Chaser," and "Blue Monk," the set also includes three stunning solo piano performances on "Don't Blame Me," "I Love You Sweetheart Of All My Dreams," and "Crepuscule With Nellie." However, an undeniable highlight of the concert was when the veteran drummer Philly Joe Jones who was an expat living in Paris at the time comes from backstage to borrow the sticks from the 17-year-old Wright, providing a palpable spark on Monk's "Nutty."
1. I Mean You
2. Ruby My Dear
3. Straight No Chaser
4. Bright Mississippi
5. Light Blue
7. Don't Blame Me
8. I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams
9. Crepuscule With Nellie
10. Bright Mississippi
12. Blue Monk