24 Feb Mulligan Meets Monk – Thelonious Monk and Gerry Mulligan (Guest Post)
In the late 1950s, jazz had been assigned separate camps in which the differences were as pronounced as Britney Spear’s music is from that of the Insane Clown Posse. Each had their heroes, and rarely did jazz fans listen to music that did not distinctively fall within that of their chosen camp.
Out of this great divide comes an album that is the 1950s equivalent of the meeting between Run-DMC and Aerosmith: Mulligan Meets Monk.
A poster boy for the Cool, or West Coast, jazz movement, Gerry Mulligan had been burning it up for several years, and was at the apex of his popularity in 1957. White, elegant, melodic, and attainable, he was, to fans of Monk, the very antithesis of the dissonant, sometimes unreachable, and poignantly unique style that made the hard bop practitioner one of the most respected jazz musicians of the day.
Nevertheless, the two shared an affinity for each other’s music, and a mutual respect for one another, as well. Out of that respect was borne one of the great jazz albums of all time featuring two of the all-time greats leading each other into territory neither had yet explored.
Largely populated with tunes written by Monk, the album offers a glimpse into the means by which jazz musicians are able to co-exist within different frameworks while working towards attaining the same goal – albeit, by different routes.
Beginning with ‘Round Midnight, we immediately feel the effects of Mulligan’s smooth, melodic baritone sax contrasted with Monk’s off-handed piano.
The two battle it out through Rhythm-a-Ning, with Mulligan ably keeping up — and often leading the charge — with Monk and his band at the time, which included Shadow Wilson on drums and Wilbur Ware on bass. (It should be noted that Monk and his rhythm section were playing an extended six-month residency at the Five Spot Cafe in New York at the time, with John Coltrane as the saxophone player.)
It’s not until Sweet and Lovely, a track that Mulligan had recorded with his sextet in 1955, that we really started to hear the stylistic differences between the two, neither willing to give in to the pressure mounted each by the other.
Here we find Monk’s dissonance combined with the sweetness of Mulligan’s strains, each moving further into the depth of their stylistic choices, encouraging each other to move in different directions, neither bowing to the other, with Monk’s humming and moaning dramatically audible in the ample space left by quartet.
By the end, one realizes how magnificently each of the styles is able to cohabitate with the other, so long as neither of the practitioners bends to the will of the other. It’s an exercise in mutual respect and admiration just as much as it is one of fierce determination and elocutionary decisiveness.
As we move into Straight, No Chaser, the group has gelled together, still allowing for each member to move towards the edge of the precipice, with the other three there to reel them in before disaster strikes.
By the end, one is convinced that the two may have made one of the best decisions they’d ever made in recording with each other.
Of note is that the album was recorded with brand-new stereophonic recording equipment, the notes on the back giving listeners a glimpse into what they might expect, and encouraging them to listen on a stereophonic cartridge “for proper sound reproduction and longer life.”
This copy is numbered RLP 1106 and is a re-mastered reissue on the Riverside label and uses the original cover in its entirety, save for the catalog number. Both the cover and the wax are in pristine condition, and is one of the gems of my collection.
Anyone with an interest in either of these greats, or anyone who cares at all about amazing music, should give this album a listen. It does not disappoint on any level.
About the author
Mark John Hiemstra is a writer, reader, and record collector from Montreal. In his spare time he looks for places to hide the records that his wife doesn’t know he bought.