I spent yesterday listening to one of my favorite Thelonious Monk albums. Recorded over two days in October of 1959 for Riverside, Thelonious Alone in San Francisco marked Monk's last studio date for Riverside before he joined Columbia Records. It also was his second solo album for the label, the first being Thelonious Himself in 1957. As with any great album, there's a back-story.
According to Orrin Keepnews' original liner notes, he and Monk happened to be in San Francisco at the same time and agreed to record. Orrin writes, "The session took place in a long empty meeting hall—acoustically quite good, but rather bizarre looking, with Monk sitting onstage with banks of ancient, ornate chandeliers for background."
"In a strange city—when photographer Bill Claxton [pictured] drove [Monk] to various landmarks (including the cable-car setting of the cover photo) during a break in the session, it was Monk's first real view of San Francisco. And although personal matters generally don't belong in liner notes, it might also be relevant that Thelonious had just had to leave his wife behind in Los Angeles, recuperating from major surgery, and that the first recording session came the afternoon after the opening night of his engagement at the Black Hawk—when, due to varied confusions not of his making, Thelonious had been the only member of his quartet on hand for the first two sets."
Actually, there's a little more to the story, details that Orrin couldn't use in the liner notes. At the time, Monk was without a New York cabaret license, compelling him to travel outside of the city to earn a living. According to Leslie Gourse's biography of Monk, Straight No Chaser:
"In October 1959, while traveling from a gig in Chicago to one in San Francisco, Nellie [Monk's wife] became sick on an airplane. They were planning to make a stopover to visit Nellie's cousin in Los Angeles because they had a week's vacation before engagements. By the time she arrived at her cousin's house, she had to be rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery for an obstruction in her lower intestine. Nellie began to believe that with all her illnesses, that she would die before Thelonious." [Pictured, from left: Monk, Nellie and John Coltrane]
According to Nellie, as quoted in Gourse's book:
"That's how the album Thelonious Alone in San Francisco got its name. He had to go to San Francisco alone to make money to pay for the operation. When he had to leave, he said to me, 'Now you make sure you don't kick the bucket, and you're here when I get back, because I don't want to pay for an operation if you're gone.'
"I almost died. [Nearing death], I don't know where I was but I said to myself, Oh I can stay here, it's so beautiful here. Oh no, Thelonious is waiting. I fought my way back. It saved my life when he made that joke."
Thelonious Alone in San Francisco is less impatient than some of Monk's recordings of this period. His playing is a bit more anticipatory and precise in its ferocity. Percussive notes abound, but there's less abstract hammering and more introspection and use of chord clusters, allowing the beauty of his sudden ideas to sink in before you're distracted by high-impact notes.
There are classic Monk originals here, like Blue Monk, Ruby, My Dear and Pannonica (a rather interesting choice given Nellie's condition). And there are slow-motion standards, like Everything Happens to Me and Irving Berlin's Remember. But there also are two originals that had not been recorded previously and never would be again—Round Lights and Bluehawk.
Two tracks on this album are particularly noteworthy. The first is Reflections, originally called Portrait of an Eremite, which here is probably Monk's slowest solo rendition of the song. He had recorded the composition solo in Paris in 1954 for the Vogue label, but on Alone it's a shade slower, allowing Monk to tease out every ounce of coloration and build.
And there are two takes of There's Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie!, a obscure Tin Pan Alley standard from 1930 that Monk had never recorded before nor would attempt again. (Listening to Monk's slowed version, I couldn't help but wonder whether Joe Hamilton was influenced by it when writing I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together, the closing theme to the Carol Burnett Show in 1967.)
All in all, Thelonious Alone in San Francisco is a special album. Monk's mood clearly is cautious and hampered by worry, the pace is gentle and the standards, established originals and new originals all leave you with a very different set of impressions and ideas.
JazzWax tracks: Thelonious Alone in San Francisco is available at iTunes or on CD here. If you enjoy Reflections as much as I do, you'll find a brilliant mid-tempo version from 1952 produced by Ira Gitler on the recently remastered The Thelonious Monk Trio here. Monk's 1954 solo version is available on a Vogue import here.