Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk are both iconic figures in music. Miles turned restless, performer who once said to Val Wilmer: “I’ve gotta change. It’s like a curse…”. Indeed, recordings from his late catalogue seemed to mirror an ever-changing ‘style’ [for want of a better term]. However, there were times when he created albums with groups of musicians with whom he seemed to take flight song after song, album after album. The album Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet is one of those albums [others being Cookin’ with The Miles Davis Quintet , Relaxin’…  and Steamin’…  – all mid-1950/early 1960s the Prestige imprint. A 4-CD set was also released by Concord Music. Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet slots into that same series, and was recorded and originally released by the same imprint.
Thelonious Monk, on the other hand, appeared to be a seemingly changeless wayfarer at least in terms of how he like to play music. He was, for instance, almost always heard with a tenor saxophonist, bassist, and drummer. In fact, rarely did he play with more than two or three bassists and drummers and tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse was almost always by his side, swapping rhythmically swinging and dancing soli with the master himself. Occasionally, however, Monk opened the door to his charmed circle and let someone else in: like Gerry Mulligan [Riverside, 1957], with Johnny Griffin – Thelonious in Action with Johnny Griffin [Prestige, 1958], most famously with Sonny Rollins, which produced Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins [Prestige, 1953] and Brilliant Corners [Riverside, 1957] and with John Coltrane, among them the legendary encounter captured on Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane live at Carnegie Hall [Blue Note, recorded in 1957n and released in 2005] and this one, Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane [Riverside, 1961].
The boutique label Craft Recordings has done us all a favour by releasing these classic recordings once again. The albums have been imprinted as 180-gram vinyl LPs. Each of the albums are superbly remastered. In the case of the Monk album, the process involved remastering from a monaural recording. Some audiophile aficionados [including myself] consider analog monaural providing better sound fidelity. Aural perception may differ from engineering reality, just as the digital CD seems to suggest. But dyed-in-the-wool audiophiles are… well dyed-in-the-wool and have high-end equipment to argue the toss and thus it is, as the Greeks would say, QED. Whatever the case, the thrill is in vinyl, so to speak, here at least…
The sound of Miles’ horn is quite smoulders and seduces and bedazzles with its sardonic mesmerism. The trumpeter draws the listener in as if he were led away into a fabled cave à la the proverbial Pied Piper of Hamelin. The repertoire on the album is characteristic of what Miles bent and curved to his will in the 1950s and 1960s – a mix of standards, a celebrated original [Half Nelson] and a tribute to a musician that Miles considered a musical hero [a rarity from the mouth off a trumpeter who famously miserly with his praise]. The musicians, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer “Philly” Joe Jones, each of uncommon genius, come together as if they are completely attuned to the leader’s artistic vision [of that time].
More importantly, Miles’ musical and soloing alter-ego during the 1950s was John Coltrane. The tenor saxophonist already provided intimations of his own greatness as a virtuoso on the instrument, and we know that during his stint with Miles’ famous quintet, ‘Trane was already formulating musical ideas of his own, ones that would lead to his leaving the band after one last tour in 1960, and going on to create what Ira Gitler referred to as music cascading in “sheets of sound” – the kind of which produced the now fabled chart Giant Steps. But that is another story… At any rate, Trane is, throughout this [and other quintet sessions] the quintessential virtuoso who helped fashion the proverbial mirror that reflects the music of the legendary Miles Davis Quintet of the 1950s, and we experience all of the reasons why this is true on each of the songs of Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet. The album was recorded in 1956. By 1957, after Trane’s departure, Miles had disbanded this quintet.
During that period, Trane was in the process of morphing into the composer who was transitioning from working the changes to exploring and adapting – and ultimately, as it turned out – completely absorbing the modal concepts documented in the theory of The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation espoused by George Russell. Consequently, Trane was digging deep into his tonal palette. It is no surprise that he came to the attention of Thelonious Monk who was, himself, in the process of exploring ways to have his music interpreted. This meant changes in personnel, still never a fixed quartet. In 1957 Trane joined Monk and two sessions of the album Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane produced by Orrin Keepnews for Riverside.
The first session produced Ruby My Dear, Trinkle, Trinkle and Nutty with Monk, Trane on tenor saxophone, with Wilbur Ware on bass and “Shadow” Wilson on drums. The second was a supersession that included Monk, Trane and the venerable Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxophones, Gigi Gryce on alto saxophone, Ray Copeland on trumpet, Wilbur Ware on bass and Art Blakey on drums. Two songs were captured on tape: Off Minor and Epistrophy. The final track on Side B of the album was a solo exploration by Monk entitled Functional.
Trane and Monk played together for just over six months but during that time Monk allowed Trane to stretch to extraordinary lengths both harmonically and rhythmically, in short to fully explore his “sheets of sound” – the fabled technique where he [Trane] explored playing against the rhythmic pulse of the percussionist while ambling, as it were, and playing dollops of notes seemingly at once, rather than dwelling on single-note phrases. This coupled with his deeply meditative tone on the tenor saxophone creating, in the process, a palimpsest for generations of tenor saxophonists – indeed almost all musicians – to follow in his wake. This album came sometime after Monk and Trane had made waves during live performances – including on the bandstand at the Five Spot. Until the time when the tapes made during a November 1957 date produced the epic session that was released as Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane Live at Carnegie Hall [Blue Note, 2005] this album, Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane was one of the most sought after by the two giants of the music.
Craft Recordings have done well to re-release both Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet and the Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane albums with original notes and packaging. Do not, however, be fooled into thinking that the sound quality hasn’t been considerably enhanced to the extent that it will thrill even a most discerning ear. Audiophiles may still prefer the analog monaural and/or high-fidelity recordings. Still, these Craft Recordings are well worth the price you are likely to fork out for them, and certainly better than listening to the digitally enhanced CD versions, albeit the fact that the Monk CD has an additional song. Both vinyls are, therefore, collector’s pieces.
Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet
Music – Side A – 1: It Never Entered My Mind; 2: Four; 3: In Your Own Sweet Way; 3: The Theme [take 1]. Side B – 1: Trane’s Blues; 2: Ahmad’s Blues; 3: Half Nelson; 4: The Theme [take 2]
Musicians – Miles Davis: trumpet; John Coltrane: tenor saxophone; Red Garland: piano; Paul Chambers: bass; “Philly” Joe Jones: drums.
Recorded – 1956, Released 1957, 2023
Label – Prestige, Craft Recordings [CR00608]
Runtime – Side A 20:27 Side B 21:52
Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane
Music – Side A – 1: Ruby, My Dear; 2: Trinkle, Trinkle; 3: Off Minor*. Side B – 1: Nutty; 2: Epistrophy*; 3: Functional*
Musicians – Thelonious Monk: piano; John Coltrane: tenor saxophone; Coleman Hawkins: tenor saxophone [Side A 3, Side B 2; Gigi Gryce: alto saxophone [Side A 3, Side B 2]; Ray Copeland: trumpet [Side A 3, Side B 2; Wilbur Ware: bass; “Shadow” Wilson: drums [Side A and Side B 1]; Art Blakey: drums [Side B 3].
Recorded – 1957, Released 1961, 2022
Label – Riverside, Craft Recordings [CR00611]
Runtime – Side A 17:04 Side B 17:08