Thelonious Monk

Columbia, 1962

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy


It’s hard to believe that at one time, critics dismissed Thelonious Monk’s playing as too simplistic because of the spaces he allowed in his piano playing. Whereas some of the most celebrated jazz artists are known for their dizzying speed, Monk’s mastery was in his subtleness and his ability to give each of his songs enough breathing room for other musicians to fill in the spaces. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Criss-Cross, his second album with Columbia, came about two years before he made the cover of Time magazine. At a lean 45 minutes, Criss-Cross’s jams rarely top five minutes. The short span and repeated rhythmic structures reveal almost a poppy edge to the tracks.

One of Monk’s greatest gifts was his ability to throw in an irresistibly catchy melody from out of nowhere. Case in point for the song “Tea For Two.” For about three minutes, the listener hears Monk’s playing – commanding attention, but not at the forefront, allowing percussionist Frankie Dunlop to fill in the spaces. Just as the song is about to end, Monk switches structures and lays down the few chords that’s most commonly associated with “Tea For Two,” almost as a slight toss off. “Think of One,” later famously covered by Wynton Marsalis, features another playful exchange between Monk’s piano and Dunlop’s percussion.

Most of the recent re-releases of Criss-Cross contain the ballad “Pannonica.” Clocking in at seven minutes, Monk gives the song an emotional weight without resorting to any “pounding the keys” theatrics. Though not originally on the first Criss-Cross recording, it is a fitting end to the album.

One of Criss-Cross’s greatest strengths is its diversity. Quoting an interview in the liner notes, Monk said “Everything I play is different.” Elitist? Maybe. Aloof? Possibly. But you can’t argue with his statement after listening to Criss-Cross. The playfulness of “Hackensack” and “Rhythm-A-Ning” are followed by melancholy tracks like “Don’t Blame Me” and “Eronel.”

It seems like a schizophrenic mix, but Monk is able to make these unlikely mixes flow effortlessly into one another.

Rating: A

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© 2007 Sean McCarthy and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia, and is used for informational purposes only.