On Record Store Day last year, one of the most coveted scores was a very limited edition two LP boxed set run of a previously unreleased recording by jazz legend Thelonious Monk. The soundtrack to a 1960 French film called Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the vinyl set included a bonus disc of alternate takes and such from the recording session as well as fancy book.
I didn’t get one of those sets on Record Store Day. Most people didn’t, at least here in San Francisco, where I heard reports of stores getting maybe one or two copies of the album, all of which disappeared instantaneously. Record Store Day for Monk fans kinda sucked last year if you couldn’t find the album.
Fast forward to 2018 and we find that a single disc edition of the album — the basic soundtrack — has been issued, pressed on standard weight, dark, perfectly centered and dead quiet black vinyl (manufactured at Quality Record Pressings, the disc cut by the now legendary Kevin Gray of Cohearant Audio). I picked up a copy and am very happy as it sounds pretty fantastic. The recording captures Monk’s and his evolving band just before he joined Columbia Records and became a household name, eventually appearing on the cover of Time Magazine and such. You don’t get the big book but you do get a four page album sized booklet with a new essay by renown Monk scholar and author, Robin D.G. Kelley (whose fantastic Monk biography I just completed — highly recommended!)
But what about those outtakes from the fancy boxed set? The completist in me really wants to hear those. Well… this is a time where Tidal comes in real handy because they have an exclusive stream on this album including all the outtakes! It is in standard CD quality but that is cool for me as far as the outtakes go. I am content with the basic single disc vinyl version to enjoy this music in a more high resolution form (at least until I find a copy of the box set!)
Actually, even in CD quality Les Liaisons Dangereuses sounds quite nice. It is hard to mess up recordings from this period and even in its lossy 44.1 kHz, 16-bit presentation, the basic soundtrack is very enjoyable with a fair amount of dynamic range and presence…. you even hear some tape hiss in there (which is a good thing from my perspective, indicative that the producers didn’t mess with the original analog recordings very much).
The soundtrack itself is essential for Monk fans because it is essentially new recordings of music that was in the band’s repertoire including legendary melodies like “Rhythm-a-Ning,” “Crepuscule With Nellie” (for those not in the know, crepuscule is a 14th Century French word — by way of 13th Century Latin — for “twilight”) and “Pannonica.” Saxophonists Charlie Rouse and Barney Wilen sound fresh and alive while Monk’s ever-mesmerizing Piano is always inspiring. The collection includes a wonderful Gospel tune gleaned from Monk’s early pre-jazz days, “By and By (We’ll Understand It Better By and By)” which closes the LP in a gorgeous, almost heartbreaking manner.
The outtakes up on Tidal are no throwaways either. The alternate of “Rhythm-a-Ning” is pretty smoking and even the first take of “Crepuscule with Nellie” is quite wonderful. This is not surprisingly as Monk had rehearsed the band before these sessions, choosing repertoire he felt supported the film, working on tempos and approaches to support the film scenes. To that, perhaps most intriguing is the fourteen minute “making of” sessions track for “Light Blue” in which Monk explores a quirky and clearly difficult to play tom-tom driven dirge-march version of the once-swinging song. Here he challenges the group in a fascinating journey (culminating in the four minute and under-three-minute versions, also presented on the set). This unusual interpretation is especially interesting given it was recorded in 1959, a rhythmically challenging version not employing bass drum or cymbals for a good portion of the tune — quite a different thing for jazz of the period and somehow, it works once they get it together.
These recordings are a revelatory addition to Monk’s catalog. Whatever way you get Les Liaisons Dangereuses — vinyl, CD, HDTracks (in 96/24!) or Tidal — if you are a Monk fan you need to hear it. And if you are new to Monk, you might well enjoy these lovely renditions of some of his classic tunes.
Finally, if you haven’t read it yet, I again heartily recommend Robin D.G. Kelley’s fine 2010 biography — called Thelonious Monk: The Life & Times of An American Original — in which the author paints a well-researched profile of this beloved, oft-misunderstood artist. Essential reading to fully understand Monk’s universe.