Newly Uncovered Recordings Find Thelonious Monk In His Prime

Jun 20, 2017
Originally published on June 20, 2017 6:15 pm

In 1959, the peak of his playing years, Thelonious Monk did something he'd never done before: record music for a film. Released in the U.S. as Dangerous Liaisons, the French film Les Liaisons Dangereuses featured nearly 30 minutes of Monk's music, none of which ever made it to a record. But the master tapes resurfaced last year, and were first released as a vinyl exclusive on Record Store Day this April. The music collected in Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 is a discovery that offers fresh perspective on the jazz visionary's heyday.

Monk — as well as Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers — came on board Dangerous Liaisons in 1959 thanks to music supervisor Marcel Romano. Romano had also hired Miles Davis the year before to improvise the shadowy soundtrack to Elevator To The Gallows, thus driving jazz's brief but torrid fling with French cinema in the late 1950s. An adaptation of an 18th-century French novel, Dangerous Liaisons was a hit in Europe, but proved controversial in the U.S. because of its twisted love plot. Monk's angular, questioning music helped supply an undercurrent of tension.

Monk laid down the music for the film on July 27, 1959. Romano had prepared a list of cues — they only had a day to record, and the pressure was on. But those plans went out of the window almost immediately, as Monk and his crew ripped through some of his well-known compositions. The playing throughout Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 is lively and spirited — Monk scampers around the piano, finding delight in every register, jabbing at chords in ways that jolt his rhythm section. And occasionally, he takes a few left turns, among them a tender rendition of the hymn "We'll Understand It Better By And By."

There's no clear explanation for why this music wasn't released at the time, though contractual glitches might have something to do with it. This soundtrack doesn't rewrite history — few vault discoveries do. But as a crisp studio recording of Monk playing both high-wire solos and small-group pieces, Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 is a rare find. It also allows listeners to better appreciate Monk's creative genius at a time when his idiosyncratic notions about sound and improvisation were expanding the discourse of jazz. Though Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 was in some ways a departure for Monk, he was still doing what he had always done: chasing brilliance like it was nothing.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In July 1959, jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk recorded music for a film. Nearly 30 minutes of his work was featured in the French film "Les Liasisons Dangereuses." The master tapes have just been released, and reviewer Tom Moon says they offer a listen to a jazz visionary at his peak.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "RHYTHM-A-NING")

TOM MOON, BYLINE: French cinema had a brief, torrid fling with jazz in the late 1950s. It was largely driven by music supervisor Marcel Romano who in 1958 hired Miles Davis to improvise the shadowy soundtrack to "Elevator To The Gallows." The next year, he lined up Thelonious Monk for "Dangerous Liaisons." A hit in Europe, the picture proved controversial in the U.S. because of its twisted love plot. Monk's angular, questioning music added low-level tension.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "PANNONICA")

MOON: When Monk arrived at the session on a Monday in July of 1959, he discovered that Romano had prepared a list of cues. They only had one day to record, so the pressure was on. Those plans went out the window almost immediately as Monk and his crew ripped through some of his well-known compositions.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "WELL, YOU NEEDN'T")

MOON: The playing throughout is lively and spirited. Monk scampers around the piano, finding delight in every register, jabbing at chords in ways that jolt his rhythm section. He took a few left turns that day, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "WE'LL UNDERSTAND IT BETTER BY AND BY")

MOON: Among them is this tender version of the hymn "We'll Understand It Better By And By."

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "WE'LL UNDERSTAND IT BETTER BY AND BY")

MOON: There's no clear explanation for why this music wasn't released at the time. The producer of the new set speculates it might have been a contractual glitch. Like many vault discoveries, this soundtrack doesn't rewrite history, but it does enhance our appreciation of genius.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "SIX IN ONE")

MOON: Here's Monk at a time when his notions about sound and improvisation were expanding the very language of jazz. He's doing what he probably did most days in 1959 - playing high-wire solo and small group pieces on a decent piano, chasing brilliance like it was no big deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "CREPUSCULE WITH NELLIE")

MCEVERS: The just-released Thelonious Monk album is called "Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960." Our reviewer is Tom Moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "CREPUSCULE WITH NELLIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.