May 4, 2006

From The High Priests

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Remember the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the Ark of the Covenant is stuck in a crate and stowed away in a warehouse somewhere with a hundred other identical crates? Like that artifact, this album is important in part because the music is every bit as awesome as it was just unearthed after 50-plus years in hiding, but also because it is the only decent live recording of a monumental quartet led by pianist Thelonious Sphere Monk, one of the inventors of modern jazz, that featured future luminary John Coltrane on sax. Monk, known in the forties as the “High Priest of Bop,” had a singular style that the public at large saw as nothing but demented. It went beyond music. In a time when American culture was stagnating in suburban stability, Monk explored the logic of disorder, the wisdom in madness.

One way to hear this remarkable album is as a battle of wits, a prize fight between two heavyweight champions. They chase each other around the melody on “Monk’s Mood,” closely but ably dodge the other’s every punch on “Evidence,” endure vicious taunts from irate drummer Shadow Wilson on “Epistrophy,” and in the climax of “Blue Monk,” the High Priest’s most famous composition, their fists collide Looney Tunes-style with enough force that the reverberations knock out not only the fighters but everyone who has had the guts to listen all the way through.

A word of warning: this album is not the place to start with either and is certainly not the place to start with jazz. If you are a newcomer to the medium, you begin with Miles Davis’ A Tribute to Jack Johnson (the boxer, not the wimp-ass singer), which is louder than any Scandinavian metal band, Herbie Hancock’s funky Head Hunters, and a good Billie Holiday collection before getting started proper with Miles’ perennial Kind of Blue, also featuring ‘Trane.

Those who question this music’s power would do well to check out a documentary about Monk called Straight, No Chaser. If you were wondering as I used to why Monk often just stops playing, you can see the answer for yourself: the man became so enraptured, he had to get up and dance. One can only imagine how good it felt to be smiling that twisted smile, to be behind those mysterious shades and under that strange hat, standing in one spot and slowly rotating counterclockwise. We’re lucky we can at least listen to what came out of there.

Archived article by Shuja Haider