On more than one occasion in the mid 50s, John Coltrane was kicked out of Miles Davis’s band. The final time, in 1957, drinking heavily and using heroin on a regular basis, Coltrane also got himself slapped by Miles in front of a packed house one October night – apparently Miles had had enough of Trane’s unprofessional nonsense. One of the people in the crowd who witnessed the incident was pianist and composer Thelonius Monk, who thought it was a shame to knock down Trane’s talent for the sake of personal problems.
Monk, who had, a few years earlier, signed a record deal with Riverside, was recording regularly and offered Trane a chance to play with him. A genius composer with an eccentric but unshakeable command of the piano, Monk himself had spent almost a decade trying to find enough gigs to support himself when finally the Riverside deal made him a star. To that point, many bebop players assumed he was crazy.
As 1957 went along, and Trane played with Monk, he eventually experienced, as he put it in the liner notes to his masterpiece A Love Supreme, “a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.” In and around recording for Riverside with the clean and sober Trane over the spring and summer, Monk’s band then got a long-playing gig at the Five Spot club in New York. Trane, who was mentored by Monk and inspired by the advanced harmonic ideas in the composers, music and, seems to have almost perfected his improvisational approach in a few months.
The big news jazz release of 2005 was the rediscovered concert recording of Monk and Trane at Carnegie Hall, featuring a band in fine form and Coltrane sounding every bit his mature self on tracks like “Monk’s Mood,” “Blue Monk,” and “Epistrophy.” The Carnegie Hall concert happened in late November of 1957. The next month, Trane rejoined Miles Davis in the bandleader’s first great quintet. So the total amount of time Trane spent with Monk is seven months – a little over half a year in which the tenor saxophonist kicked his drug habit and found his voice as a musician.
Now, there’s nothing truly new on the new two CD release – Thelonius Monk with John Coltrane: The Complete Riverside Recordings. If you have the 15-CD master set Riverside released a few years ago, you already have what’s in this new package. But if you are a fan of Coltrane and want to hear the studio side of the musical story of Trane’s rebirth, then The Complete Riverside is a fine investment. On these tracks, Monk and Trane are joined by Wilber Ware on bass, Shadow Wilson and Art Blakey on drums, and Coleman Hawkins on sax. On two takes of “Ruby, My Dear,” listeners can find a very clear contrast between the sound and style of Coleman Hawkins and Trane. So, for you Trane fanatics, you have a fine complement to last year’s Carnegie Hall concert recording.