Lost in Production

A reissue of Thelonious Monk’s Underground reveals the great album it should always have been.

Until a few weeks ago, many jazz critics would have ranked Underground among Thelonious Monk’s least significant albums. Now they should consider placing it in his top tier. Released in 1968, Underground is one of the last recordings Monk made before slipping into the decadelong hibernation that preceded his death in 1982 at the age of 64. The album was never taken very seriously, in part, I suspect, because of its cover—Monk sitting at an old piano in a dingy attic, toting a machine gun, surrounded by grenades, ammo, and other artifacts of the French underground (including a Nazi prisoner tied to a chair in the background). A loopy send-up of Monk’s fabled eccentricities (“the mad monk,” “the high priest of be-bop”), the cover incited so much attention that the music went largely ignored.

The cognoscenti had other reasons to dismiss the album a priori. Ever since Monk signed with Columbia Records, in 1962, his output had diminished; a once-prolific composer, he was doing little more than rehash material from his albums of the previous 15 years on Riverside and Blue Note. And his ‘60s quartet, which included Charlie Rouse on tenor sax and Ben Riley on drums, seemed a pale shadow of his ‘50s bands, which had sported the likes of John Coltrane and Max Roach.

Now Columbia/Legacy has reissued several of Monk’s albums from the ‘60s, and, thanks to project director Seth Rothstein, reissue producer Orrin Keepnews, and remastering engineer Mark Wilder, we can, for the first time, hear them—Underground in particular—the way that Monk and his quartet recorded them.

The new liner notes reveal that Teo Macero, Underground’s original producer, extensively edited the tapes from these recording sessions. He did so, no doubt, to fit all the tracks on the two sides of an LP, but he went too far. Of the original album’s seven tracks, five were cut. One, “Green Chimneys,” was chopped from 13 minutes to 9 minutes; another, “Ugly Beauty,” from 10:45 to 7. The main value of this new reissue (Columbia/Legacy catalogue number CK63535) is that it draws on the original master tapes, laying out all the tracks in their full, uncut form.

The original LP and an earlier CD reissue sounded stiff, strained, and choppy. On this version, Charlie Rouse’s saxophone solos are lyrical and inspired, his tone full and mellow; Ben Riley’s drumming is rivetingly inventive; Larry Gales’ bass-plucking alternately anchors the tempo and unleashes counter-rhythms with great vim; even Monk’s piano-playing is more spiky and sprightly.

Strangely, a close comparison between the two versions reveals that they aren’t all that different in substance. Most of Macero’s edits, it turns out, involved eliminating the bass and drum solos. I don’t mean to minimize this. The bass solo is a shamefully neglected art in general, and both Gales’ and Riley’s solos here are extraordinarily good. Their omission from earlier versions was, in retrospect, a huge loss. And the deletions do account for a bit of the original album’s choppiness. Toward the end of “Green Chimneys,” for instance, Rouse’s gruffly dexterous solo sounds so exhilarating on the new reissue because it follows—and releases the tension built up by—a 3-minute passage of bass and drum solos. On the original (Macero-edited) version, which deleted these solos, Rouse’s improvisation comes off as just another round of blowing; there’s no drama to it.

Still, these kinds of cuts are hardly drastic; simply restoring the bass and drum solos could hardly transform Underground from a middling Monk album to a great one. The crucial difference is the disc’s sound quality. In the mid-1960s, many record producers—and in particular Teo Macero—played electronic games after the artists left the studio. They compressed dynamic range, pushing up everything to the same “hot” level of loudness; they fiddled with EQ, or frequency-equalization, mainly boosting the treble; and they pumped in lots of artificial echo—all this, to make the resulting LPs sound livelier on the typically lousy stereo of the day. Alas, on today’s stereos, even on mediocre models, these effects sound deathly and harsh, like the product of machines. The results diminish the music, sometimes gravely so.

The original master tapes were unscathed by Macero’s post-production meddling. And, as is the case with many Columbia sessions from the ‘60s, the master tapes still sound terrific—tonally rich, acoustically natural, and dynamically wide (i.e., accurately conveying the differences between loud sounds and quiet sounds and all the little accents in between).

Thelonious Sphere Monk was a musician and composer every bit as unique and strange as his name. He worked out his own concept of time, his own rules of harmony, and his own method of touch. He could play, simultaneously, honky-tonk stride with his left hand and avant-garde dissonance with his right hand; pound out arpeggios with the oddest flats and sharps imaginable; disrupt phrases with abruptly angular turns—and manage somehow to make it all sound right. Today, no other pianist sounds at all like him; nor have any, however otherwise brilliant, bothered to try to. (Many musicians have played Monk’s music, but the best of them aim to capture his adventurous spirit in their own language and style.)

It’s a shame that Underground has suffered such neglect over the years, because the album marked a breakthrough for Monk (if also a last gasp). It was the first of his Columbia albums—his first album, period, for more than a decade—in which most of the songs (four out of seven) were newly composed and previously unrecorded. Nor were these compositions throwaways; they’re as bizarrely appealing as many of Monk’s familiar classics, and—in case anyone thought Monk might have been coasting—they’re more intricate than most. (You can tell a musician has seriously studied Monk when he or she plays songs from Underground instead of sticking to “‘Round Midnight,” “Well You Needn’t,” or “Ruby My Dear.”)

Ugly Beauty“ (a ravishing title!) is one of Monk’s most haunting pieces, like an étude by Schoenberg crossed with a dreamy ballad by Ellington. ” Raise Four“ is a wiggy blues-waltz: as quintessentially Monkish as anything. ” Boo Boo’s Birthday“ has the dissonantly playful structure of a Bartok piano exercise, if you can imagine Bartok in a beret, goatee, and zebra-striped sunglasses. “Green Chimneys” is a gleefully abstruse number, a soundscape “Boogie Woogie Broadway.” The album also sports a languid cover of “Easy Street” and a reprise of ” Thelonious,” which Monk had been playing as an anthem of sorts since his first album for Blue Note in 1947 but never more energetically than he presents it here.

The only weak track on Underground is a version of “In Walked Bud,” Monk’s tribute to Bud Powell, which features Jon Hendricks singing makeshift lyrics to the tune. Hendricks, so the story goes, happened to drop by the studio and Monk insisted that he sit in. It’s a disaster: Hendricks’ lyrics are trite, and his voice is in sorry shape. Teo Macero should have trashed the whole track rather than cut all those nice bass solos.