More than a masterpiece, Brilliant Corners was the culmination of a carefully devised plan to reintroduce Thelonious Monk as modern jazz’s preeminent composer. Immediately hailed by critics and Monk’s musical peers as a major new work, the album played a key role in changing the trajectory of his career after years of being undervalued as a pianist and sidelined as an eccentric.
Part of the loose confederation of players who forged the new idiom of bebop at Minton’s Playhouse in mid-1940s Harlem, Monk was both central to the modernist movement and resolutely apart. The compositions he recorded for Blue Note between 1947-48 earned him some renown, but few colleagues tackled his knotty harmonies and tricky rhythmic settings. But he was better known for his unusual behavior, quirks that sometimes stemmed from undiagnosed manic depression.
The loss of his cabaret card in 1951—due to narcotics bust where Monk refused to testify against his close friend Bud Powell—locked him out of Manhattan nightclubs. Gigs were few and far between throughout the first half of the 1950s. Signed to Prestige Records, he recorded sporadically and grew increasingly frustrated as his career languished while labelmates flourished, particularly the Modern Jazz Quartet and Miles Davis (one of the few artists at the time who regularly played and recorded Monk’s tunes).
Ready for a change, Monk signed with Riverside Records in 1955 after producer Orrin Keepnews famously paid off the pianist’s outstanding debt to Prestige ($108.27). Rather than trying to capitalize on Monk’s far-out image, Keepnews presented him as a visionary firmly in jazz’s mainstream with two trio sessions: 1955’s Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington and 1956’s standards session The Unique Thelonious Monk. Both earned strong reviews, though some critics complained about the lack of Monk originals.
Featuring drum great Max Roach and bassist Oscar Pettiford, who anchored the two previous albums, Brilliant Corners presented Monk as a composer of the highest order. Sonny Rollins, the era’s dominant tenor saxophonist, was joined by esteemed trumpeter Clark Terry and unsung, blues-drenched altoist Ernie Henry. The album introduced three new Monk standards, but the extraordinarily intricate title track was the project’s signature achievement. Refusing to share sheet music of the unusual 30-bar form, Monk insisted the group keep attempting to get a complete run through, which almost led to a physical confrontation with Pettiford. The final result was stitched together by Keepnews from 25 incomplete takes. A few splices are audible, but what stands out is the way Rollins, Henry and Monk himself extrapolate on the theme, navigating the confounding harmonic leaps with grit and grace.
Douglas Gorney conducts a smart interview with Robin D.G. Kelley, author of the authoritative biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original.
Pianist Ethan Iverson offers a contrarian tour through Monk’s discography.
Soprano saxophone great Steve Lacy, the first person to record an album devoted to Monk’s music, compiled a list of advice he received from the Maestro.
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE...
“Pannonica” - A luscious, oozy ballad dedicated to the British-born Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, Monk’s close friend, patron and protector, the lovely piece features Monk on the bell-like celeste on the intro and outro, an impromptu switch made when he saw the instrument at Reeves Sound Studios. The band sounds more comfortable on the piece than most of the album’s other tracks, with Rollins playing a gruffly sensuous solo that exemplifies his deep connection with Monk’s music.
“Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are” - A 13-minute blues romp that takes its oft misspelled title from the Bolivar Hotel, where Pannonica de Koenigswarter (known as Nica to her friends) lived and Monk often found refuge. He and Rollins rehearsed much of the Brilliant Corners music there, but it’s Ernie Henry who sets the mood here, playing a searing, smeary solo that’s a blistering highlight of his all-too-short career.
“I Surrender, Dear” (Harry Barris & Gordon Clifford) - The hit song that launched Bing Crosby’s solo career in 1931 proves to be an ideal vehicle for a solo Monk excursion. On an album defined by densely voiced horns and unorthodox instrumentation, this rippling ballad performance arrives like a sun-dappled clearing in the midst of overgrown woods, displaying Monk’s singular, percussive touch and thoughtful phrasing.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Thelonious Monk prevailed upon Orrin Keepnews to record alto saxophonist Ernie Henry, but only one of his three excellent Riverside albums were released before his death at 31 from a heroin overdose.
- Clark Terry’s 1958 Riverside album In Orbit marked Thelonious Monk’s last appearance as a sideman, a gesture the pianist made out of his abiding respect for the trumpeter.
- Coleman Hawkins, the father of the tenor saxophone in the 1920s, and John Coltrane, the most influential tenor player of the 1960s, memorably joined forces on Monk’s classic 1957’s Monk’s Music.
- Three weeks after the epochal 1964 arrival of the Beatles in New York City, Thelonious Monk was the subject of a Time Magazine cover story on Feb. 28 titled “The Loneliest Monk.”
Listen to Brilliant Corners in its entirety on your preferred streaming platform below.
Words: Andrew Gilbert