By DJ Pari
In a recent group chat among jazz vinyl collectors on Instagram (yes, that's where a lot of us hang out), we were discussing the release of Thelonious Monk's previously unheard Palo Alto album when someone casually asked, "do we really need more Monk?"
What followed was a moment of awkward silence. Too outrageous was this question for anyone to even consider dignifying it with a response. Obviously only a heretic — I'm going to spare them the humiliation and won't name them here — would dare to speak such unspeakable words. Even if we treated this question as purely rhetorical, it allows for just one foregone conclusion: Yes, absolutely, we will always need more Monk. And Palo Alto, the latest nugget in the pianist's extensive discography (released by Impulse Records a few weeks ago), isn't just another collection of long-lost throwaway material that miraculously reemerged from someone's attic. With this recording, the Monk estate struck gold.
It's not just that the tape of this 47-minute show from Oct. 27, 1968, had been sitting on a shelf for decades. Much has already been written about the bizarre circumstances of how this event came about: 16-year-old white Jewish schoolboy and jazz fan Danny Scheer is audacious enough to call Monk's agent and book the jazz legend to perform at his Bay Area high school. He ventures deep into the then-segregated black neighborhoods of East Palo Alto to hand out flyers and hang posters promoting his event. Defying all skeptics and naysayers, Scheer really pulls it off, Monk and his group arrive in the afternoon in an old station wagon with Sheer's older brother behind the wheel. The rest is history.
Most surprisingly, even the playing-the-same-old-tunes-at-a-high-school-auditorium-towards-the-end-of-his-recording-career era Monk is brimming with passion. The group, also comprising tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley, really cooks, adding new life to Monk classics like "Ruby my Dear," "Well, you needn't" and "Blue Monk." Monk only wrote 87 original compositions in his lifetime, he is not judged for the depth of his catalog, but for the treatment of his material, which he changed consistently with each recording, and Palo Alto is no exception.
This most unusual performance may have remained but a footnote in the pianist's complex biography, had it not been for the school's janitor, who captured it on his mono reel-to-reel machine. After the tape, which Scheer safeguarded for 52 years, went through a sonic jiggle-bath, a remarkably clean recording emerged that eventually was pressed into vinyl for the first time. And before you ask, yes, it was done right.
It is my guess that the suits at Impulse Records considered complaints from Coltrane fans about the dull presentation of the saxophonist's previously lost Blue World album last year, because they gave Palo Alto a treatment worthy of Monk's standing as one of the most important composers and performers in jazz. The vinyl release comes in a gorgeous gatefold cover and includes a booklet with liner notes by Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley, plus, as a bonus, authentic reproductions of the concert's program and poster, making this set not just a must-have for any Monk fan, but a little treasure in every jazz collection.
And in Monk's own words, you've got to dig it to dig it, you dig?
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