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It’s a wonderful moment to be a jazz fan—and not because of the never-ending flow of worthwhile new releases.
Making this moment wonderful are new, previously unreleased live albums by Thelonious Monk and Ella Fitzgerald.
Monk’s is called Monk Palo Alto (Impulse!), and the story behind it is almost as good as its music.
Booked by the brash 16-year-old Palo Alto High student and future concert promoter Danny Scher, the show the recording commemorates took place on Oct. 27, 1968, at the school. Monk, who was hardly hurting for high-profile gigs, could’ve easily passed.
But he didn’t. And whether he didn’t because he needed the $500 payday (roughly $4,000 today) or because, as his son T.S. Monk has said, “he loved kids,” Monk and his three-man combo threw themselves into their performances.
A janitor, of all people, recorded it.
Now, restored to an almost unbelievable level of audio clarity by Grand Mixer DXT, the show lives again.
Monk and his trio catch fire almost immediately, delivering for their second number a 13-minute “Well, You Needn’t” highlighted by the bassist Larry Gales’ extended, scatting-enhanced bow wielding and drummer Ben Riley’s blistering response. Many in the applauding crowd didn’t buy tickets until the last minute because they couldn’t believe Monk would actually show up at some “lily white” school with a slightly out-of-tune piano. But beginning with Track 3, a 6½-minute solo-piano rendition of “Don’t Blame Me,” it’s Monk himself who commands the spotlight.
Not that he hogs it. Tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse runs melodic interference throughout. But it’s Monk who drives the music, his playful assurance epitomizing what he’d meant when he once said, “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.”
The backstory of Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes (Verve)—Verve Records’ Norman Granz’s records show the recording gets lost, the recording gets found—isn’t as interesting as Monk Palo Alto’s. But it doesn’t have to be. Fitzgerald at her peak leaves “interesting” in the dust.
She was at her peak during this March 1962 show, driving the Germans wild with her incomparably bright voice, her precise articulation, her flawless pitch, and her irrepressible capacity to swing. She hit notes, sustained notes, and swooped curlicues above, below, and around notes with a girlish vivacity that sounds as if she were inventing the songs on the spot.
It didn’t adhere strictly to the Great American Songbook, not with Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah, I Love Him So,” Sam Coslow’s “Mr. Paganini,” and the Roaring ’20s hit “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!” in the mix. Still, great and American is what it was. At this point in her career, Fitzgerald could’ve made the Great American Phonebook sound good.