Live jazz is often the best kind of jazz, and live jazz albums are next best thing to actually experiencing live jazz. Live albums are like time machines, transporting you to the scene of the recording. The older the album is, the better the time travel experience. One place I’d love to travel back to is the Newport Jazz Festival during it’s infancy of the 1950’s, when giants walked the earth. Well, jazz giants like Thelonious Monk.
Recorded live on 3 July, 1959 at Newport Jazz Festival, Newport, Rhode Island
- Thelonious Monk- Piano
- Charlie Rouse- Tenor Sax
- Sam Jones- Bass
- Art Taylor- Drums
George Wein’s annual Newport Jazz Festival in the affluent city of Newport, Rhode Island featured the great jazz musicians of the day, as well as thousands of fans that soaked in the music under the sun and stars. It’s still going on today, but man what I would give to travel back in time and catch some of those sets. Then again, I’d want to stay right there on the festival grounds and not venture out into the city. Racism was fierce for people like me back then.
This record captures a set by the Thelonious Monk Quartet, complete with stage announcements from usual the Newport MC Willis Connover. He had the perfect voice for the radio and broadcasting, which he put to use on his radio show called Voice of America, where he played jazz music that was beamed out across the country and internationally, all the way to Europe. After a descriptive introduction, the musicians are off.
Thelonious Monk is one of only a handful of jazz musicians that could play an hour-long set consisting purely of original tunes (Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, and Horace Silver immediately come to mind). The whole set is good, and I had a hard time choosing between the above tune and my favorite Thelonious Monk original, ‘Well, You Needn’t’. ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’ won because Monk gets some punchy comping in that perfectly compliments Rouse’s sax, starting off pretty busy behind him, then dropping down to a few chords, then finally laying out until it’s time for his own solo. Plus, it’s always great to hear Monk tackle a standard jazz tune, in this case the changes to ‘I Got Rhythm’. All the better to appreciate Monk’s quirkiness and style. Jazz drummer veteran Art Taylor holds things down, throwing numerous syncopated accents into the mix. The sound is fantastic for an archival recording, and the stage ambiance, complete with loudly stamping foot from Monk, add to the you-are-there feeling of the album. It was surely a power-packed weekend of jazz that July. Also performing that weekend was Ahmad Jamal, Art Blakey and His Jazz Messengers, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Horace Silver…
The album was pressed by the online music treasure trove organization called Concert Vault. Started in 2002, going live in 2003 online, Concert Vault and its other business arm Wolfgang’s Vault, is the largest collection of live concert recordings, spanning numeorus genres of music, but mostly rock and jazz. The company acquired hundreds of Newport Jazz Festival tapes from 1955 on up through 2000’s, in addition to other live jazz recordings from places like George Wein’s jazz club, Storyville in Boston. An annual paid membership gives you access to unlimited music performances, and there’s merchandise to be bought as well. This album, as well as a 1967 Newport appearance by Miles Davis, are available for purchase, as well as a free gift for renewing/purchasing an annual membership. The jazz selection is enough to put serious jazz fans in cardiac arrest. Live Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck, and more from the 1950’s, in glorious full stereo? Bring my coffin, boys. The recordings used to be available for purchase and download, but a few years ago they put an end to that. Nowadays, you just get unlimited play.
This particular album is the first record pressed by Concert Vault. At least I assume it is, since the catalog number is ‘001’. I’d like to see them press more Newport Jazz Fest sets to vinyl, but after six years, they’ve only made three jazz albums, including this one, the Miles Davis album, and a Ray Charles set from Newport 1960, in addition to three non-jazz albums, making a grand total of six albums. Next time I see a shooting star, I know what I’m wishing for.
This is a cool album cover. A collaborative effort by artist Theresa Seelye and a designer by the name of Surlyfella, the spare side profile of Thelonious Monk is powerful and hints at the type of music on the record. The use of blue (Blue Monk?) is aesthetically pleasing, as is the alternate colors used in the title at the bottom. The white trim outlining the artwork is a nice touch, and the hand-written label on the left side of the album add to the retro feel of the cover artwork. That label, written in crayon, is probably what the original master tape had written on the outside. It all makes for evocative art and design. Theresa Seelye and Surlyfella, take several bows.
Solid if not relevantly brief liner notes, mostly filled with a biography of Monk and dedicating only three paragraphs to the actual music on the record. The printed label at the top left is a neat reminder that this record was pressed from an actual tape. Other than the label, it’s a rather plain back.
Pressed on heavy, thick 180g virgin vinyl, this is an original pressing from…2013. Most modern-day records don’t sound that great, mostly due to the source of the music and the mastering of said music. Historically, records were made from music recorded to tape. Now, music is made digitally, but you can’t just slap digitally-produced music onto vinyl and think the job is done. Doing so just produces terrible-sounding vinyl. Playing some of these modern releases, like the new Bruno Mars album (don’t judge. He’s catchy like a rash), on vinyl, it sounds like the record is worn, despite being brand new. The culprit? Music that was digitally made and incorrectly mastered for vinyl and the playback machines it’s created for.
Luckily, that’s not an issue with this release. Concert Vault used the original tape as their source for the record, like they did in the 1950’s, and the result is a beautiful-sounding record. The music was miraculously recorded in stereo, and the sound engineers mastered it so that Charlie Rouse’s saxophone is in the center of the mix, with Monk’s piano and Jones’ bass on the left, Taylor’s drums on the right, and the audience ambiance throughout the mix. Considering this was recorded non-commercially, most-likely for rebroadcast on Willis Connover’s radio program, the sound is amazingly clear, spacious and life-like. The audio quality is on par with the best Columbia 6-eye studio albums. Or have I gone too far? Like I said, Concert Vault needs to press more of those beautiful-sounding stereo tapes of live performances to vinyl! There’s a ready market, and many of these performances are already out in terrible quality on numerous bootleg and semi-official CDs.
The Place of Acquisition
I bought the album online at Concert Vault’s merchandise website, Wolfgang’s Vault. Well, bought isn’t the right word. The website used to award you points each time you renewed your membership, and after two years I had enough points to ‘buy’ the album from their online store. I’ve seen a few copies for sale on eBay and on Discogs, as well. For a college student, scoring a ‘free’ record in perfect condition is major victory, especially when it’s an album of mostly unreleased stuff.