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Why Was The Custodian’s Mix Of Thelonious Monk’s Palo Alto Concert Not Released The First Time Around?

Mark Smotroff ponders one of the mysteries of Record Store Day 2021…

Last year, one of the most exciting new releases for jazz fans had to be the newly unearthed and previously mostly unknown live recording of Thelonious Monk performing live at a high school in Palo Alto in 1968.  There is a great back story about this recording which I’ve reported on previously so please click here if you are not familiar with that part of the tale.

But… then…. surprise of surprises…  an announcement happened in 2021 that there would be a special “Custodian’s Mix” of the same concert issued on Record Store Day. 

In short, the mysterious high school janitor exchanged his skills in tuning the piano for this performance for rights to record the show.  Clearly, this custodian was quite a technician with multiple microphones and at least some sort of mixing board to bring several channels of music together, likely recorded live to two-track Stereo (probably reel-to-reel) audio tape. This sounds like a soundboard recording for the most part although it could be argued that it might have been a strategically-placed stereo pair of mics set up toward the front of the stage. 

Either way, the point is we have to make some assumptions here that the so called “mix” was printed live on to tape and that was that. 

Well, not entirely.  It seems that DJ Grand Mixer DXT did some sonic work on the tape to prepare it for the 2020 release. That initial version sounded quite solid, if a bit reigned in to the point where it almost sounds like Mono.

The new version released last week on Record Store Day has a few curious things going on of significance. First, it sounds  brighter and fuller, with a more open high end as if a layer or three of compression were removed. And the sense of Stereo soundstage is more pronounced on this new edition.  

The Record Store Day pre-release hype was a bit more aggressive with its promise: “The Custodian’s Mix uses the audio from the original tape to put you in that high school auditorium in October 1968 and lets you feel what it was like to be in the room.”

I don’t know if it quite does that in that it is clearly a recording which at best puts you on stage or in front of the stage with not a lot of room ambience mixed in. I know I’m splitting hairs here but its worth pointing out. 

But the question remains as to why this album was released in this manner?  I have reached out to the label but have not heard back as of yet.

Perhaps there were differences between the Monk estate and the folks at Universal/Impulse as to how the music should be presented? That would explain the release of two distinctly different visions of the same recording. 

Perhaps an earlier version of the tape was found in the interim which required less clean up work, prompting a release like this? The 2020 version does sound like it has had sonic anomalies and incongruities cleaned up a bit while this new 2021 version appears to be more of a “warts ’n all” scenario. Accordingly, don’t be surprised if you hear some tape drop outs, periodic distortion and maybe even a bit of hiss (but nothing major). 

Yet there is some confusing information on the official Monk website which has a tweet embedded stating: “The new Custodian Mix by @grandmixerdxt allows the listener to experience the historic account of the concert as it happened.”

Of course this begs the question as to whether this is indeed “the” actual tape as recorded by “The Custodian,” or simply another vision for the music as crafted by the producers of this release? 

I guess as a fan of Monk’s music, this should be our biggest “problem” : having two versions of the album to choose from… We should be thankful ultimately. 

That said, at the end of the day, the big question is ultimately: which one do I like better?  

Well, while it is a far cry from a perfect document to begin with, I think I prefer the so called “Custodian Mix” which feels a bit more natural and open sounding comparatively.  

If the Monk estate ever decides to work on a “definitive edition,” I would hope they would try employing Plangent Processes technology which could probably work wonders tightening up the sound to address tape “wow and flutter” and other anomalies which are inevitable in a recording of this nature. 

Until then, I’m grateful we have this new version.  If you didn’t get the 2020 version, or if you loved the 2020 version, you’ll probably want to seek out this new 2021 edition of Palo Alto.

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