Thelonious Monk – Brilliant Corners

Credit: BootLoverPhotography

Review by Ms. Ann

Thelonious Monk, piano, celeste on “Pannonica”
Ernie Henry, alto sax
Sonny Rollins, tenor sax
Oscar Pettiford, bass
Max Roach, drums, timpani on “Bemsha Swing”

On “Bemsha Swing”
Clark Terry, trumpet replaces Ernie Henry
Paul Chambers, bass replaces Oscar Pettiford

“I Surrender” is an unaccompanied piano solo


Side 1:
1. Brilliant Corners (Monk)  Time:  07:46
2. Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are (Monk)  Time: 13:10

Side 2:
1. Pannonica   (Monk)   Time:  08:51
2. I Surrender, Dear    (Clifford-Baris)  Time:  05:28
3. Bemsha Swing (Monk-Best)    Time: 07:41

Recorded at Reeves Sound Studios in New York City during October 1956


On a complex day, Thelonious Monk seems pretty straight forward.  Life is not straight time, regular beats, and pleasingly harmonious.  Today “Brilliant Corners” plays out its choral theme followed by variations on a theme showing how one can redefine a listener’s perception of meter by variation of accents on a straight meter and creative inspiration.  Complex days need the flow of the unexpected and unusual to mirror the feelings of life and strangely, today this song makes perfect sense.  Life has sharp edges and true extraordinary art reflects life. Musical exploration includes utilizing scales in a way you might not always expect, dividing time in non-standard ways, as dancing on a musical tightrope is the appeal of this ambitious and adventurous expedition.

“Brilliant Corners” is in 4/4 time.  It has 4 bars intro, then 8-7-7 (22 bars) which are repeated.  It also has 2 beat triplets and beat accents placed in non-standard places.  Chords, it is a blues in B flat.  As a musician playing this piece, you cannot rely on muscle memory of playing a blues dialogue because of the negated measures and the strong sense of rhythm needed for the continuous 2 beat triplets.  For this album the produced final cut of “Brilliant Corners” is actually a joining of three different takes spliced together.

The band is not an ongoing ensemble, it is musicians hired to record Monk’s music, they are a studio ensemble. These folks are of the highest caliber given the challenge before them, simply reading the pieces, and recording them that day, no pre-recording rehearsals. Hat tips all around.  The album is three different recording sessions and splices of the best parts of tunes taped together.  Listening to the album, the technical applications were done extremely well, and I would never know if I had not been told.

Musicianship kudos on “Brilliant Corners” go to Sonny Rollins who produces a brilliant solo using the melody as a basis, Monk’s solo is a variation on a theme, and Ernie Henry’s solo with its long tones working beautifully in contrast against the changes underneath. Max Roach plays outstanding and solid for the entire song.  If the players had difficulty playing the theme in unison, they were obviously at ease improvising.

On October 9th, 1956, “Pannonica” was recorded.  It is a unique ballad dedicated to Baroness of Jazz Pannonica de Koenigswarter. Monk uses a celeste with the piano, playing them simultaneously.  It gives the song distinctive layers of sound, a heavenly almost lullaby quality.

“Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are” exceeds 13 minutes, is an extended cut, has slightly unconventional changes in bars 6–8, and the recording captures outstanding solos by Ernie Henry, Monk, and Sonny Rollins. The walking bass solo of Oscar Pettiford is a highlight.  All the musicians are in their groove.

Another recording session was held on December 7th, 1956, with a change up in players.  A Caribbean-inflected melody Monk had co-written six years earlier with his friend, Barbadian-born drummer Denzil Best, and a tune Monk had recorded before, was given a new breathe of fresh Caribbean breezy air.  It is a truly formidable rendition with a highlight being Max using a timpani drum next to his kit to play the thunderous fills on throughout the piece.

Monk completed the content needed for an album with a five and a half minute solo version of Harry Barris and Gordon Clifford’s “I Surrender Dear.”  Here Monk the pianist is featured, fracturing the tune, heightening the tension, giving his unique musical sensibility, and making the tune his own.

For me what makes this album a must listen to album is its freshness. The music flows by in the air with a presence of being for me.  The Monk compositions and Monk as a pianist is so unordinary, keeping the musicians on the edge of their seats to play the tunes, this translates into the music and transcends into the sound. For me, the album grooves by, and time bends in on itself.  I love this path not usually taken.