Album Review: Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane – Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings

Monk and Coltrane are two legends that have become as linked to jazz as an Satchmo trumpet solo and for one short but magical time in 1957 both could be seen performing together every night at New York’s Five Spot Café.

Picture walking towards 5 Cooper Square in the Bowery in the sweltering early summer months and hearing Monk’s piano mingling with Coltrane’s sax. Jazz fans should read that and tingle. Sitting in with the two were Wilbur Ware on bass and Shadow Wilson on drums and the sessions there would evolve into the only recorded studio album they would make together, now available again in a deluxe reissue featuring the full iconic recordings.

1954 was a rough one for Theloniuous Monk. He’d been busted for marijuana and, despite high acclaim from critics and peers, he wasn’t selling. Riverside Records picked him up for a mere $108.24. It was time for a career relaunch, one he opted to begin at the Five Spot, one of the spots to be in New York if you wanted to dive into some jazz.

John Coltrane wasn’t a much better position. Sure, he’d been heard on some “prestige” sessions with Miles Davis but that quintet folded mainly due to Coltrane’s addiction to heroin. By ’57 he was looking for new gigs and found one with Monk at the Five Spot.

Monk was looking for reinvention and Coltrane was about to take his giant steps forward. Something had to explode.

And there, for one brief moment in jazz history, one day legends would create that kind of rare art frozen in time never to return. Thankfully, somebody had the wherewithal to record it. In the same year as his solo self-titled debut and the now seminal recording Blue Train,  Coltrane sat in on sessions that would form later releases by Monk (mainly Monk’s Music, Thelonious Himself and a 1961 issue of the material recorded four years earlier at the height of Trane’s popularity called Tholonious Monk with John Coltrane).

“Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I learned from him in every way,” Coltrane said in an interview with DOWNBEAT.

Hear for yourself. It’s all been pieced together now in a newly minted imprint by Craft Recordings in a 3-LP immaculate sounding 180-gram vinyl pressing remastered from the original analog sources.  Featuring other greats like Art Blakey and Coleman Hawkins, the recording features new artwork, rare photos and insightful essay by the late Orrin Keepnews, who, as producer of the original sessions, was present at the creation of every note.

Now you can be almost as close as the set features full tracks, false starts and alternate takes of the original recordings. Highlights include “Monk’s Mood”, a fascinating look at the two’s recording process with five different renditions of “Crepuscule with Nellie” and perhaps the best sounding version of “Ephistrophy” I’ve heard! All just in time for Monk’s 100th!  

Disc One
A1. Monk's Mood [false start]
A2. Monk's Mood
A3. Crepuscule with Nellie [take 1]
A4. Crepuscule with Nellie [take 2]
A5. Crepuscule with Nellie [breakdown]
B1. Blues for Tomorrow [first stereo release]
B2. Crepuscule with Nellie [edited: retakes 4 & 5]

Disc Two
A1. Crepuscule with Nellie [retake 6]
A2. Off Minor [take 4]
A3. Off Minor [take 5]
A4. Abide with Me [take 1]
A5. Abide with Me
B1. Ephistrophy [short version]
B2. Ephistrophy
B3. Well, You Needn't [opening]

Disc Three
A1. Well, You Needn't
A2. Ruby, My Dear [with Coleman Hawkins]
B1. Ruby, My Dear [with John Coltrane]
B2. Nutty
B3. Trinkle, Tinkle