Monday, February 15, 2016

Thelonious Monk - 1969 [1990] "Underground"

Underground is a 1968 album by Thelonious Monk. It features Monk on piano, Larry Gales on bass, Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, and Ben Riley on drums.
Although this album is most widely known for its provocative cover image, which depicts Monk as a fictitious French Resistance fighter in the Second World War, it contains a number of new Monk compositions, some of which appear in recorded form only on this album. This is the last Monk album featuring the Thelonious Monk Quartet, and the last featuring Charlie Rouse (who appears on only half the tracks, having missed a recording session to attend his father's funeral).

This release has long been considered Thelonious Monk's acknowledgement to the flourishing youth-oriented subculture from whence the collection takes its name. Certainly the Grammy-winning cover art -- which depicts Monk as a World War II French revolutionary toting an automatic weapon -- gave the establishment more than the brilliant swinging sounds in the grooves to consider. Underground became Monk's penultimate studio album, as well as the final release to feature the '60s quartet: Charlie Rouse (tenor sax), Ben Riley (drums), and Larry Gales (bass) behind Monk (piano). One of the motifs running throughout Monk's recording career is the revisitation of titles from his voluminous back catalog. The tradition continues with the autobiographical leadoff track, "Thelonious." The instantly recognizable stride piano lines are delivered with the same urgency and precision that they possessed over two decades earlier when he first recorded the track for Blue Note. The presence of Charlie Rouse throughout the album is certainly worth noting. "Ugly Beauty" best captures the sacred space and musical rapport that he and Monk shared. Each musician functions as an extension of the other, creating solos that weave synchronically as if performed by the same pair of hands. Newer material, such as the playful "Green Chimneys" -- named after the school Monk's daughter attended -- as well as the unbalanced hypnotism of "Raise Four," asserts the timelessness and relevance of Monk's brand of bop. The disc ends as it begins with a new twist on an old favorite. Jon Hendricks -- who provides lyrics and vocals on "In Walked Bud" -- recalls the hustle and bustle of the real and spontaneous underground Harlem jam sessions of the late '40s. It is likewise an apt bookend to this chapter in the professional life of Thelonious Monk

Underground was recorded in 1967, about 20 years into the career of this wholly distinctive and unorthodox pianist-composer. Whenever the understated saxophone talents of Charlie Rouse accompany Thelonious Monk, one is assured of an invigorating set of music--and this collection is no exception. Supported by Larry Gales on bass and the inimitable Ben Riley on drums, Monk and Rouse elaborate on immortal compositions like "Ugly Beauty." On "In Walked Bud," the quartet is joined by vocalist Jon Hendricks. With jagged themes and unusual variations of meter and key, Underground showcases an aging Monk's still-brilliant eccentricity on the piano. A good bit looser than much of Monk's earlier work, he and Rouse infuse this date with their tag-team humor and unrelenting musical enthusiasm.

Definitely not what you'd label as an inaccessible album, this album (which counts "Ugly Beauty", Monk's only recorded waltz-time piece, among its works) constitutes in essence a musical comeback for Monk, who at the time had not released any albums with more than four original compositions since the mid-fifties (more than a decade before).
It's packed with works that range from melancholic and blue ("Easy Street") to joyful ("Green Chimneys"); from "simple" and straightforward (such as the opening track, which actually dates a couple of decades before) to complex and filled with accents (such as "Boo Boo's Birthday.")
All in all, it's an exquisite work of music that you can tap your day away to or sit down and listen carefully to in order to disect it in detail. 

I got this CD as a gift -- this was my introduction to Monk. First couple times I listened to it, I was shocked with his unique style, with his approach to jazz, and with his compositions. The quality of this record is nothing short of stellar. Monk sounds fresh and energized. He seems to be very well-synchronized with the rest of his band, and they make magic. Every musician on this recording is terrific. The rhythm section is solid. The bass player does a few improvisations, especially on Ugly Beauty and Green Chimneys, and it is something you don't hear much of, at least not of this quality. These guys don't miss a beat. Monk is a truly creative player and composer, and this recording really showcases that.
I don't suggest this record as an introduction to jazz, but if you enjoy jazz, this is a good place to start with Monk's work, in my opinion. You may not get into this record until you make a couple passes at listening to it and possibly listening to other good jazz in between different attempts at this record. I feel that listening to Miles Davis really helped me appreciate Monk even more, as weird as this sounds.
I just love this CD. I especially enjoy listening to it over a great pair of headphones because it makes you feel like it's just you and them, without any kind of disturbances or sounds from the outside to distract you from catching and enjoying every tune that emanates from this record.
Buy this remastered version with extra tracks. The sound couldn't be better, and the extra tracks provide more takes of the great tunes that appeared originally on this record.

The remastered sound of Underground's reissue is much cleaner and crisper. The songs were restored to the original recorded length and there are a few bonus tracks added. Oh yeah, the album cover is clearer and closer (which is very important).

I agree with the reviewers that say this is not Monk at his peak, but regardless of that, I think this is one of his best albums. The musicians sound like they are having fun performing and the relaxed approach to the recording takes away from some of the intensity sometimes expressed in some of the classic Monk albums.

There are some nifty liner notes including an explanation behind the album cover and the story surrounding the making of the album.

(about the editing)

I somewhat prefer the edited versions of these songs from the previous release because the songs feel concise to the compositions. That may upset some jazz purists, but frankly a decent solo can get lost in the translation of the recording and end up hurting the overall performance and composition. I think back in those days the musicians expected the solos to get edited (it was a natural part of the recording process). These "unedited" versions that we hear in these re-issues are not necessarily what the musicians intended as the final versions.

Overall, Thelonious Monk's Underground is a terrific album; one of his best and I highly recommend checking it out- edited or unedited.

Track listing (later CD issue)

All songs composed by Thelonious Monk unless otherwise noted.

    "Thelonious" – 3:13
    "Ugly Beauty" – 3:17
    "Raise Four" – 5:47
    "Boo Boo's Birthday" – 5:56
    "Easy Street" (Alan Rankin Jones) – 5:53
    "Green Chimneys" – 9:00
    "In Walked Bud" (Jon Hendricks, Monk) – 4:17


    Thelonious Monk – piano
    Charlie Rouse – tenor saxophone
    Larry Gales – bass
    Ben Riley – drums
    Jon Hendricks – vocals on "In Walked Bud"