Befitting its historical stature, the first release of two 25-minute sets by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane together at Carnegie Hall on November 29, 1957, comes with booklet essays by six different writers, including Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter and Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley. “1957 was the year Coltrane truly became Coltrane,”
Ashley Kahn begins his. Well put, though the qualifier is unnecessary. Despite having battled Sonny Rollins to a deadlock on “Tenor Madness” the previous spring, Coltrane began ’57 still regarded by fellow musicians as the guy to call when Rollins didn’t answer his phone. Before summer ended, he’d followed his May recording debut as a leader with Lush Life, Traneing In, and Blue Train—the albums that started to pull him even. But the real turning point was in April, when he got the heave from Miles Davis, who’d decided Coltrane’s heroin habit made him more trouble than he was worth. (You think Rollins’s sudden availability also had something to do with it?) Holing up in the house he’d bought his mother in Philadelphia, Coltrane went cold turkey and hallucinated God. Practice became his new addiction. Then in July, he joined Monk, who was celebrating the return of his cabaret card with an incumbency at the Five Spot—the final step in becoming Coltrane, legend says, though until now the scant evidence we’ve had to back it up consisted of three tracks on a Monk LP and a dismally recorded club tape released on Blue Note in the ’90s.
The chance discovery of the Carnegie Hall tapes at the Library of Congress earlier this year created an anticipation not witnessed in jazz since . . . well, not counting the 1945 Dizzy Gillespie–Charlie Parker Town Hall concert that beat Monk and Coltrane to the market by just a few months, you’d have to go all the way back to new releases by Coltrane and Miles in the 1960s, and I’ll leave it for you to conclude what this says about jazz in 2005. This month’s other major topic of conversation is One Down, One Up, a double CD of Coltrane’s quartet at the Half Note in ’65, whose selling points are legitimacy and decent sound—these radio broadcasts have been around as bootlegs forever. Though One Down, One Up presents what might be the longest Coltrane solo ever recorded (the title track, at 27 minutes), live Coltrane from ’61 on is so plentiful that this just gives us more of what we already have. Carnegie Hall ’57, on the other hand, is pure manna. You’d think a benefit concert that also featured Rollins, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, and Chet Baker would itself be the stuff of legend, but no. It doesn’t seem to have been reviewed anywhere, and not even the ubiquitous Ira Gitler, another of the six annotators, recalls being there.
But now here it is, out of the blue, and if you’re worried about sound quality, be assured that even though the first set is a little distant, the late show is superior to most contemporaneous studio recordings, especially Monk’s piano. Starting a set with a ballad is a risky move, even when the ballad is “Monk’s Mood.” Though called on to do little more than harmonize with the piano on the theme statement and preserve the air of whimsical rumination in his brief solo, Coltrane fulfills these tasks with a lilt that suggests why Prestige’s Bob Weinstock once envisioned grooming him into another Stan Getz. Stretching out on Monk’s uptempo “Evidence,” “Nutty,” and “Epistrophy,” he’s the maw-crammed beast he was already on his way to becoming with Miles. What’s unexpected is a jollity that seems born of a determination to dance along with Monk’s slanted arpeggios and off-kilter comp—there’s even a hint of what we would soon come to recognize as Charlie Rouse’s chuckle.
The second set is perfection. Following the brisk, Latin-accented “Bye-ya,” the only standard here, “Sweet and Lovely,” starts off at an amble and you think it’s going to be Monk’s feature all the way through. Coltrane somberly intones the melody, going up a half-step on repeat and laying out on the bridge, as Monk offers a series of wry harmonic variations, emphasizing the beat by sidestepping it every time it comes around. The pattern holds during Monk’s solo, with Coltrane playing straight man. Coltrane takes a chorus of his own at the established tempo, and then—double time would be an understatement for three minutes of turbocharged racing around substitute chords that points the way to “Giant Steps.”
If I haven’t said much about Monk, it’s because even though the jazz cognoscenti were then just catching up to him, he was already in mid-career form and remarkably consistent (musically, anyway). Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Shadow Wilson, the unsung bassist and drummer, make anticipating his moves sound easier than it probably was. Stride bass was implicit when not explicit in Monk’s compositions, so Abdul-Malik dedicates himself to a rolling beat,
which frees Wilson to accent off of it. But Coltrane was the one in transition in 1957. Back with Miles by Christmas, he often said it was during his stay with Monk that he started thinking about the possibility of sounding two or more notes simultaneously on saxophone. The credit for showing him how actually goes to the obscure Philadelphia saxophonist John Glenn, who’d learned the technique from Mingus sideman Sadi Hafti. Even so, if all he gained from Monk was a boost in confidence and a fuller analysis of the way harmony and rhythm and melody go together, that would still be a lot.
He’d moved far from Monk by the time of One Down, One Up. The title track fades in on a Jimmy Garrison bass solo, and following nearly a full half-hour of Coltrane, announcer Alan Grant tells his radio listeners that the tune began 35 minutes in advance of the broadcast, which probably means this was Coltrane’s second extended improvisation. The one we hear, based on the scantest of themes, is minimalistic in development, immense in power. Garrison and McCoy Tyner drop out 11 minutes in, leaving Coltrane and Elvin Jones to go one on one. Their dialogue is so fierce Jones’s bass drum pedal flies off, but he keeps up the attack on his snare and cymbals. You’re more relieved than exhilarated when it’s over. Then you ask yourself how many in jazz today could make you feel you had something at stake in a solo this lengthy and obsessive.