June 14, 2024

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CD review: Thelonious Monk Quartet – Live Five Spot 2022: Video, CD cover

What are the first two names that come to mind on reading the phrase ‘Thelonious Monk’s saxophonist’? Chances are they will be John Coltrane or Charlie Rouse. The runner-up could be Sonny Rollins and somewhere further down the field might be Johnny Griffin.

Griffin deserves to move up the list. The hard blowing, express velocity, R&B-schooled tenor player starting gigging with Monk in 1948. In 1955, he was the Monk quartet’s saxophonist during a one-week residency in Chicago, Griffin’s hometown. In 1957, he performed memorably on Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk (Atlantic).

However, Griffin’s crowning Monk moments came in summer 1958, as a member of the quartet which Monk led during a residency at New York’s Five Spot. Riverside Records recorded the band there twice, on July 9 and August 7; Monk was unhappy with the July recording (some of which Riverside released posthumously), hence the return visit. Various so-called complete editions of both nights have been issued. But la crème de la crème remains the August material which was released by Riverside on two albums in late 1958: Thelonious In Action and Misterioso.

The Swiss-based ezz-thetics label’s Live Five Spot 1958 Revisited is basically those two Riverside albums, minus a two-minute performance of Leonello Casucci’s “Just A Gigolo” and two one-minute set-closing readings of Monk’s “Epistrophy.” The three items have been omitted to limit playing time and so enable optimal audio quality on the CD. The ten remastered tracks, already crisply recorded by their original producer Orrin Keepnews and engineer Ray Fowler, have been raised to new heights by ezz-thetics’ sonic jedi, Michael Brändli, and the label’s founder and artistic director, Werner X. Uehlinger.

Despite his several on-off intersections with Monk, Griffin did not learn the bulk of Monk’s repertoire until the Five Spot residency, and was still getting to grips with some of it on the night of Riverside’s July recording. In a 2004 interview with Monk historian Robin D.G. Kelley, Griffin said: “I found it difficult at times, I mean, DIFFICULT… We rehearsed on the bandstand. [Monk] wouldn’t pull his music out, and the joint would be loaded, every night. He had it in his briefcase, but he said it would be better if I heard it. So he would play the melody and I’m supposed to retain [it] after he played the first chorus, and I was supposed to play the second chorus coming in with the melody! So you can imagine what happened, I’d mess up, and he’d say ‘No, no, no, let’s do it again.’ And the people loved it. [But] you know what? I was never embarrassed.” The full story can be read in Kelley’s definitive Monk biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times Of An American Original (Simon & Schuster/Free Press, 2009).

By August 7, however, Griffin had it down. He soars through the tunes, taking wonderfully uninhibited solos, and is sufficiently at ease that he throws in the occasional lighthearted quote, such as a few bars of Richard Rodgers’ “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” during Monk’s “Nutty.” Bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and drummer Roy Haynes, who moves everything along at a slightly faster pace than is usual with Monk, are also in fine fettle. And Monk reigns supreme. Check “In Walked Bud” on the YouTube below for a taste.

The Five Spot was Griffin’s swansong with Monk. He quit towards the end of the summer. “I had to make some money,” he told Kelley. “I couldn’t make no money at the Five Spot… It wasn’t a large club, it was small, so there wasn’t much money to go around.” Sonny Rollins stood in for a couple of weeks, then had to split himself. As his replacement, Rollins recommended Charlie Rouse, who Monk knew and admired. And a new chapter in Monk’s story began.

Johnny Griffin – tenor saxophone
Thelonious Monk – piano
Ahmed Abdul-Malik – double bass
Roy Haynes – drums

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