ALBUM TITLE: Brilliant Corners
ARTIST NAME: Thelonius Monk
YEAR OF RELEASE: 1956
Holly: I Surrender, Dear
Brilliant Corners was recorded by bebop pianist Thelonious Monk and his band of heavy hitters (most notably Sonny Rollins on tenor sax and Max Roach on drums) on October 9h, 15th and December 7th, 1956 and released to huge critical acclaim in 1957.
The album was recorded in 3 separate sessions, the first of which was on October 9th when they laid down the tracks Pannonica and Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are with relative ease. The second recording session on October 15th however was fraught with tension as they tried to record the title track Brilliant Corners. The track was so complex and difficult that it took almost 25 takes to get it on tape and caused sax player Ernie Henry to have a meltdown (he would end up pantomiming on some of the takes) and harsh words for Monk from bassist Oscar Pettiford. The track ended up having to be cobbled together from the various takes.
On December 7th Henry and Pettiford were replaced by Clark Terry (trumpet) and Paul Chambers respectively and the last two songs of the album were recorded.
When it was released, Brilliant Corners was apparently the most acclaimed album of 1957 and considered to be Monk’s artistic peak.
Thelonious Sphere Monk was born October 10th, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina but moved to New York City when he was a young child. He took up piano lessons with the neighbour who taught him the ‘stride’ style of jazz, and he would also accompany his mother on the piano at church. When Monk was 10 he was enrolled in classical piano lessons where he would learn pieces by the behemoths of the classical music world, but discontinued the lessons when it was clear that he was focused on jazz. In his late teens he found actual work playing jazz, specifically at Minton’s Playhouse, a nightclub in Manhattan where he continued to develop his be-bop style of play. Although in the jazz corners of the music world Monk was gaining traction, having recorded with Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, Monk’s albums weren’t selling, even with the unwavering support of the wife of the co-owner of Blue Note Records.
In 1954 Monk traveled to Paris and met Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a great patroness of the arts and especially jazz music. Pannonica took Monk under her wing and became a close confidant and unwavering support for him. Finally in 1956 Monk had a breakthrough with the release of Brilliant Corners, his first commercially successful album.
Monk’s career continued to thrive, especially in the club scene throughout the 1960s, but by the 1970s Monk retreated from the scene and struggled more with his lingering mental health issues. The last 6 years of his life he spent isolated at Pannonica’s house, where she nursed him alongside his wife Nellie. He had mostly given up on playing piano and he ultimately succumbed to a stroke on February 17th, 1982.
When traveling through Delaware with Pannonica, she and Monk were pulled over and their vehicle searched by the police. They found a small amount of marijuana, for which Pannonica took the fall and even spent a few nights in jail to cover for Monk.
Monk had incredible dexterity, being able to play and a melodic line simultaneously with his right hand.
Yes! Some ahead of its time jazz! Woo! I was very excited to see this on the list of albums to review. When putting this album with all the other music we’re currently listening to for the blog, it really makes Thelonius Monk seem miles ahead of what else was going on musically. This album is well produced, with an all star lineup, and sounds just great! One of the best things about this album is the drumming, with Max Roach just killing it on all the tracks. The saxophones also sound great, and of course Monk himself does too!
The first track, Brilliant Corners, seems like a very ballsy choice to open an album with, but it also works because of its weird, bombastic, angled quality. There are some good, short solos, and some weird playing that I very much liked.
This is followed by a slightly chiller tune, Ba-Lue Bolivar, Ba-lues Are, which to be honest, did not hold my attention as much. Might be because I seem to have trouble keeping focus with blues tunes or songs built on blues chords, or maybe it’s just not quite as interesting. Anyway, it features alto saxophonist Ernie Henry fairly heavily whose sound I don’t love, as well as Monk himself who meanders in and out of blues however and whenever he feels! And then – what I was waiting for since the beginning of the album – Sonny Rollins shows up to blow my socks off. I love that man.
Pannonica is a quirky little ballad with lots of bell sounds that make it sound like some kind of slightly saccharine jazz lullaby nightmare, but it’s cute, and the dark sound of the tenor sax keeps everything well balanced.
I Surrender, Dear is up next, which is Monk’s solo tune on the album. I’ve really been enjoying a lot of solo piano lately, and this one just hit me right. I really love the sensitive way that Monk approaches the piano and the variety of articulations he gets out of it. This song is a bit of a journey, and I really enjoyed it.
The end of I Surrender, Dear dovetails nicely into the last track of the album, Bemsha Swing which reunites the whole gang. It’s a fun tune that is slow but high in energy and gives Max Roach plenty of latitude for his drumming.
All together, this album is really well paced, and thought out, with clever connections between the songs, and a really high quality band. I like Monk’s approach to music and overall really enjoyed listening to him in the prime of his career.
Thelonious Monk virgin here. I can confidently say I had never listened to Thelonious Monk until I had to listen to this album. I asked my bestie who is more of a jazz aficionado what he knows about Monk and he said “percussive”. So that’s basically all I knew going in. I did however recognize the names Sonny Rollins (sax) and Max Roach (drums) so I figured I would be in for a treat!
The first song is the title track, Brilliant Corners and I could hear Monk’s percussive style from the get go. It’s a good opening song with I feel like piano (duh) and saxophone being the main features of it. I don’t know about the history of jazz or progression of jazz as much as Holly does but I feel like for 1956 this might have been seen as fairly progressive. I really like the growling that the sax makes and the main melody definitely sticks in my head.
The second track is the bluesy Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-are. This one is definitely my least favourite track on the album. To me it reminds me a bit of that high school jazz standards book where us in the rhythm section would just play that 12 bar blues over and over while mediocre and more often than not terrible adolescent musicians would squeak, squawk and try to blues scale solo to the best of their abilities. It just seemed like such an underwhelming, safe choice after such an interesting opening track.
Next up on the B side is my favourite track of the album, Pannonica. I absolutely love the use of the celeste here by Monk. I feel like because this is a tribute to his friend and benefactor, the celeste is a beautiful and almost sweet way of maybe personifying Pannonica in the song. The song is a slow, languid walk, with oft unison but sometimes harmonizing and sometimes clashing saxophones carrying the main melody, with interludes and ad libs filled in by Monk on his celeste. There is also a great sax solo in this track where the drums pick up and start to swing.
I Surrender, Dear is up next, and this is a close second for my favourite track on the album. It’s really all about Monk – just him on the piano, no combo for assistance. The song SOUNDS like it’s easy for him, just improvising and playing around the melody beautifully and expertly. I kept waiting for the drums to come in, but Monk holds the track down himself for its entirety.
Finally we close out with Bemsha Swing. It’s been a minute since I’ve played music in school or professionally or what have you, but I could not get my foot hold in the time signature on this one! This one is high energy with another great piano solo, but more impressively, and great drum solo by the legendary Max Roach.
I was really happy that his album ended up being my first toe dip in the pool of Thelonious Monk, and I’m definitely adding this record to my want list!
Average grade out of 10:
Link to the album on Spotify: