This Friday Sam Records and Saga will release a true jazz rarity. Thelonious Monk – Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 is a two-CD album of the music that Thelonious Monk provided for the soundtrack of Roger Vadim’s 1959 film Les liaisons dangereuses (dangerous liaisons):
courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications
The title was taken from the 1782 epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, which can probably be fairly described as one of the pioneering fictions of sexual politics. Vadim decided it would be more appropriate to transplant the plot line to his contemporary Paris, rather than present a costume drama that would have greater fidelity to Laclos’ text. As might be expected, Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders for this new release.
One of Vadim’s contemporary elements involved his treatment of an extended party scene at which Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers played a series of compositions by Duke Jordan. French saxophonist Barney Wilen joined Blakey’s group for this contribution to the soundtrack. However, for the narrative of the film, music director Marcel Romano wanted pianist Monk to provide the music. Monk knew little about this film or its plot. Romano had hoped to familiarize him by bringing him to Paris for both club and concert gigs, but that could not be arranged around Monk’s other commitments.
As a result, Vadim and Romano came to New York; and Vadim arranged for an edited print be sent over for Monk to view. After that Monk said he would get to work. Between July 27 and July 29 in 1959, he brought his quartet, whose other members were Charlie Rouse (tenor saxophone), Sam Jones (bass), and Art Taylor (drums), to the Nola Penthouse Studios, where they were joined by Wilen (also playing tenor saxophone). However, rather than create an “original soundtrack,” the group recorded a set of pieces that Monk had previously composed, “Rhythm-a-Ning,” “Crepuscule with Nellie,” “Six in One,” “Well, You Needn’t,” “Pannonica,” “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are,” and “Light Blue.” “Pannonica” was played by both Monk’s quartet and also as two shorter solo piano takes. Finally, for one particularly ironic scene of a seduction in the making, Monk recorded a solo piano version of Charles A. Tindley’s gospel hymn, “We’ll Understand it Better, By and By.”
Thelonious Monk – Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 marks the first time this material has been released on compact disc. (A limited edition vinyl recording was released this past April 22 for Record Store Day.) All the tracks incorporated into the film are on the first CD. The second provides alternate takes of “Rhythm-a-Ning,” “Crepuscule with Nellie,” “Pannonica,” and “Light Blue,” an unedited recording of “Well, You Needn’t,” and a “making of” recording (lasting almost fifteen minutes) of work on “Light Blue.”
Those who are serious about listening to Monk will probably be justified in asking whether these new recordings have anything to add to all of their past listening experiences. It is a fair question. I can only hypothesize an answer with the disclaimer that, while Monk accounts for a generous share of my jazz collection, I cannot say that I have ever listened to those recordings the with “analytic intensity” I often bring to the classical side of my collection. Nevertheless, after listening to Robin D. G. Kelley talk about his book Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, I made it a point to read the book for myself, enjoying every minute of the time I devoted to that reading experience.
By the time I got to the end, I realized that few (if any) of my recordings were made under circumstances that Monk found particularly satisfying. The problems were both musical (the quality of the piano or the relations with other members of the group) or commercial (involving the work practices of how the studio was run). When one considers the extent to which Vadim and Romano went out of their way to bring Monk into their project and then stayed out of his way, I came away feeling that conditions at Nola Penthouse were probably as good as Monk had ever encountered when recording was at stake.
This is not to suggest that these recordings come anywhere near the experience of listening to Monk playing at the Village Vanguard (which I managed to do a few – but not enough – times during my student days). Nevertheless, these are definitely well-crafted recordings in which all contributing performers are well-balanced and there is at least some sense of spontaneity emerging from the execution of it all. As might be guessed, the tracks of Monk’s solo work are the ones in which one can come away with at least a few hints of having experienced his mind “in action.”
The bottom line is that this new album is not likely to gather dust sitting alongside all of my other Monk recordings, simply because it offers a point of view that definitely stands firm on its own virtues.