Hall of Records

Thelonious Monk/Gerry Mulligan: Mulligan Meets Monk

by Michael Tatum

Released: 1957 (Riverside)

After a decade of frustration of setbacks, of tiny victories and major music, 1957 was looking to be Thelonious Monk's year. Not only had he had earned the rave reviews and impressive sales in late spring he'd always craved with his unassailable mind-bending masterpiece Brilliant Corners, he did it with his own original material -- his first two records for Riverside after they bought out his contract from Prestige, both commercial failures, were an Ellington tribute and a collection of standards, a strategy by producer Orrin Keepnews to make Monk's music more palatable to the mainstream jazz audience. In addition, after a great deal of politicking on behalf of his diligent new manager, moonlighting high school teacher Harry Colomby, the city of New York finally re-instated his cabaret card, so not only was he finally able to score solid gigs, he could use those gigs to woodshed his daring new quartet featuring tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, who after years of being dismissed as a undistinguished journeyman was finally coming into his own as a remarkable player. Unfortunately however, although they recorded some dynamite sides, including the now-legendary "Trinkle Tinkle," Monk couldn't actually release a note -- Coltrane was signed to Monk's old label, so for the saxophonist to appear on any Riverside recording Monk would have to return the favor for his old boss Bob Weinstock by guesting on a Coltrane session, something the bitter Monk was loath to do. So while Riverside glumly sat on the extraordinary Monk/Coltrane sessions until 1961, Keepnews had another brainwave: to pair the great pianist-composer with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.

Although Monk disdained "blowing sessions" -- probably because they emphasized standards over originals and, duh, they ceded more creative power to the horn players -- big star "meet-ups" were quite common in the '50s jazz world. Mulligan himself participated in several -- his 1959 collaboration with tenor giant Ben Webster is considered a major triumph in that vein. But the 1957 pairing of Monk and Mulligan was so unorthodox two generations of liner notes have taken pains to address its innate strangeness. While the New York born-and-bred Monk was associated with -- some, including Monk himself, would have said invented -- the be-bop of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and the Harlem jazz club Minton's, the Queens-born Mulligan, raised primarily in the Midwest, garnered fame by writing and arranging much of the sessions later released as Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool, developing the sound further by moving to Los Angeles and co-helming a quartet with trumpet player Chet Baker. Stylistically, the "cool jazz" associated with Mulligan (and not completely embraced by Miles Davis himself, by the way) was often portrayed in the jazz press as being aesthetically at odds with the more jagged, harmonically adventurous be-bop -- the original East Coast-West Coast beef, you might say -- but the truth of the matter was hardly so simple. In fact, although Keepnews didn't know it beforehand, Mulligan and Monk already had a history together. Following a particularly frustrating performance in France in which Monk was subjected to the indignity of depending on the chops of a hometown rhythm section unfamiliar with his work, Mulligan was the only one to rise to Monk's musical challenge during an otherwise alienating after-hours impromptu session. According to Robin Kelley's essential Thelonious Monk, the Life and Times of an American Original, things didn't improve in the days that followed, with the exasperated pianist being moved to despair of Parisian audiences: "They're not listening to what I'm playing." Years later, during his decade recording for Columbia, France (and indeed all of Europe) would give him a hero's welcome, but during that tour he only had the spiritual support of Mulligan, who told him, "Don't bother about it...I'll be listening to you from now on. I'll be just off stage listening. If you turn a little that way, you'll see me there." Though ultimately Monk only invested time into those that were on his wavelength -- John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins -- you can almost divine Monk as treating the 1957 collaboration as a way of paying back a spiritual debt. As for the humble Mulligan, whose star was in far greater ascendance that year, you can bet who owed who was the furthest thing from his mind -- he was getting a chance to meld minds with a stone cold genius.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the music per se, let's talk a little bit about Mulligan's ax, the baritone saxophone. First, it wasn't initially conceived as a solo instrument, much like a bass guitar in a standard rock lineup -- its role in a band is pure rhythm, and to root compositions harmonically. Second, and this may not be completely obvious, it's a big fucking instrument -- the length from mouthpiece to bell is roughly five feet, though unlike tenor and alto saxes, the neck loop curves downward to make it more manageable to hold, resulting in a s-shape (compare this to a soprano sax, which might be mistaken from a distance for a clarinet). Still, it's unwieldy compared to others in the brass family, and because of this it damages easily, so dedicating yourself to it takes a certain commitment, not to mention height (Mulligan was six-four). Harry Carney of the Duke Ellington band is considered the instrument's patron saint -- that's him taking the gorgeous melody line in "Sophisticated Lady" -- but Mulligan, taking a flier from the airy, melodic style of Lester Young, is arguably the first soloist of the post-bop era to develop its naturally liquid tone into an individual style. That's partly why listeners regarded Monk as an odd sparring partner -- as future Monk right-hand-man Charlie Rouse pointed out to a big-band arranger charged with adapting the master's work for an octet at the Monterey Jazz Festival, "Monk likes everything short," exactly what Mulligan's mellifluous lines aren't. But Mulligan's urbane approach obeys another Monk dictum of which Rouse was certainly also aware: to adore the melody. One distinctive feature of Mulligan's playing, especially on this record, is that he doesn't have much use for the lower and upper registers of his instrument, usually floating in the comfortable middle ground where he explores the possibilities of the melody line without flying too far into harmonic nether regions, something you can't exactly say of Coltrane or Rollins, ace as they are. Mulligan rolls those notes in his mouth so lovingly you can almost taste the reed in your mouth when he plays.

Compositionally, Monk dominates Mulligan Meets Monk, as he should -- the only song not written or associated with Monk is Mulligan's "Decidedly," a variation of the saxophonist's "Blues For Gerry (Undecided)" that, strangely, the pianist adorns with nothing more than respectful comping. Monk made Harry Tobias' "Sweet and Lovely" his own on Prestige's 1954 Thelonious Monk Trio, whereupon it became one of a handful of his fancifully re-arranged standards (as with "Tea For Two") that other musicians wouldn't touch because they were perceived as "old-fashioned"; it gets a predictably alluring treatment here. Of the remaining four, "I Mean You," and especially "Straight No Chaser" and "Round Midnight" were among the master's best-known songs -- in particular, Mulligan made sure that he had an opportunity to put his own personal stamp on "Round Midnight." That song, already a standard, is very much in Mulligan's mode -- after all, much to Monk's chagrin, Mulligan's old boss Miles Davis took it far past four in the morning, first during his legendary 1955 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, and again on his 1956 debut for Columbia Records. That's why of far greater interest is this album's major performance and only "new" Thelonious creation, "Rhythm-a-Ning," which Monk had already recorded earlier in the year with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers for Atlantic, but would remain in the can until 1958. Monk noted about the Atlantic session that he purposefully took "Blue Monk" at a slower tempo just to annoy non pareil drummer Blakey, who the persnickety Monk accused of rushing the tempo, and he performs a similar test of wills here with Mulligan, tearing through "Rhythm-a-Ning" at breakneck speed (the version on 1962's Monk's Dream is much more deliberate), thus the perfect gauntlet for a madcap be-bopper to throw at laid-back L.A. cool cat. At the two minute mark, Monk drops out, leaving Mulligan to fly solo with the rhythm section for forty-five tense seconds, something he would slyly do in concert without warning to test his saxophonists (though as it happens, Mulligan had experience with this -- his quartet with Chet Baker was piano-less). Then, at roughly 3:39, something extraordinary happens. Jazz writers often overly romanticize the "fruitful dialogue" (to quote Robin Kelley) that occurs between great players, but at this point you can actually hear the two soloists engage in a staring contest: Monk plays a simple four-note figure with each of his hands, several octaves apart. It's so indelible, Mulligan realizes Monk's going to repeat it, so the second time he joins Monk in unison. Then, they repeat it once more. Finally, for the fourth go-round, Monk fakes Mulligan out -- not playing a damn thing while leaving to Mulligan "fluff" a few tentative notes. Whoops! After which the two men hunt and peck like they're vainly searching for the right key on a portable typewriter, building up tension until by telepathy they link hands and jump off the proverbial cliff to take the song home -- so thrilling even nondescript drummer Shadow Wilson gets excited.

Oh, yes -- did I mention the rhythm section? Wilson and bassist Wilbur Ware, both of whom only played with Monk on this session and the three tracks recorded with Coltrane, are the only weak links -- one wonders if Keepnews buried them down in the mix out of ineptitude or savvy (indeed in several places -- the end of "Round Midnight," and the beginning of "Sweet and Lovely" -- Mulligan gives gracious low end support). Otherwise, this is a wonderful recording -- in no other small-group setting would Monk ever again pit his choppy piano against a baritone saxophonist, something that gives this record a distinct flavor, even compared against albums from his discography with a greater critical cache. "I felt like I was walking on a tightrope," admitted Mulligan about this project in his interview for the Library of Congress. "The way that Monk accompanies you, and the way he approaches chord progressions, really demanded a different approach from me. I could hear in places where I was getting it together, like getting into a groove with him that really fit, and in other places that I was really kind of stumbling because I couldn't find my way. I kind of marvel at my guts to go record something like that, to put myself in the frying pan that way. But that turned out to be the only time we ever recorded anything together, which in itself was kind of a happy accident. I'm glad we did it, even if it's got big bruises on it." And of course, Monk wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

July 11, 2014, Odyshape