In today's tumultuous world, it's a welcome comfort that a treasure such as "Monk – Palo Alto" has been released on the Impulse label to all of us grateful, delighted fans! I won't discuss the background of this October 1968 concert in great length since it's well covered, but will only say that we're so fortunate that against the backdrop of terrible racial tensions, young Danny Scher persisted, arranging for Thelonious Monk and his group to perform at his high school. Added to this feat, the school janitor recorded the concert (decent sound and in stereo) so that over fifty years later we can experience even more of Monk's special brand of magic in one of the best live recordings I've heard!
The concert begins with "Ruby My Dear" which is played a bit more up-tempo than usual. There are some beautiful flourishes from the band behind tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse as he solos, and Monk and bassist Larry Gales are perfectly synched up. Monk then takes a page from Rouse with his opening solo notes and its then classic Monk on one of my favorite and most endearing of his compositions. Next the band launches into "Well You Needn't" and if a better live version of this tune exists I have yet to hear it, the energy is unmatched! Perhaps the band, realizing they're at the end of their run together, felt inspired to reach greater heights in these waning moments. As usual, Rouse and Monk play as of one mind - Rouse seems to 'get' Monk better than any other saxophone player, even as much as I enjoy John Coltrane's and Sonny Rollins's collaborations with the pianist. The saxophonist possesses the most angular solo lines which create perfect geometrical shapes to bounce off anything Thelonious Sphere Monk conjures up. I've read that Monk wasn't a big fan of arco bass solos (bowed bass technique) and it's taken me some time to come around to them too, but Larry Gales' arco bass solo on "Well You Needn't" helped make me a believer. Ben Riley follows up Gales with an inspired drum solo complete with some dazzling snare work before the band returns to the melody. "Don’t Blame Me" is a treat with Monk playing solo, stride style on the left hand and with his signature cascades and runs of notes like rain, a 'pitter patter' for the ear drums! His only ‘accompanist’ is in fact a squeaky piano bench but it's all part of the charm of this live recording. "Blue Monk" is another personal favorite as it's one of the first jazz standards I ever learned and was, I was quite pleased to discover, also one of Monk's favorites. The band swings hard throughout and really stretches out over 14 mesmerizing minutes. "Epistrophy" delivers incredible solos by Rouse and Monk but behind them the whole time, building to a frenzy at the end, is Ben Riley’s blazing drums, wow! The magical night concludes with Monk again playing solo on “I Love You Sweetheart Of All My Dreams” and in his signature way he closes out the piece and the evening with a few, stark discordant notes as the high school crowd erupts into applause. It’s the perfect ending to a night of music that we’re so delighted exists for us on this fantastic recording - seek this one out right away, I promise that the album even exceeds sky-high expectations!
- Bob Heinrichs