Thelonious Monk: Misterioso (1958)




Thelonious Monk (piano)


Misterioso (Riverside OJCCCD-206-2)

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Thelonious Monk (piano), Johnny Griffin (tenor sax),

Ahmed Abdul-Malik (bass), Roy Haynes (drums)


Composed by Thelonious Monk


Recorded: live at the Five Spot Café, New York, August 7, 1958


Rating: 80/100 (learn more)

"In the shadow of a man who walks in the sun," observed pre-Surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico, "there are more enigmas than in all religions, past, present and future." How fitting, then, that De Chirico's 1915 painting The Seer (or The Prophet) should decorate the cover of Thelonious Monk's 1958 LP Misterioso. Not only was it recorded live at Greenwich Village's Five Spot Café, whose habitués included numerous Eisenhower-era avant-garde painters, but if ever a musician embodied De Chirico's scuola metafisica, it was Monk. To many jazz aficionados, here was indeed a Seer (or Prophet), from whose iconoclastic compositions and idiosyncratic pianism one might glean the most profound and disturbing metaphysical insights. Moreover, Monk by reputation personified De Chirico's shadowy figure: a large, distracted, reclusive man who, even if he showed up for a scheduled gig (which in the '50s was far from a given), seemed never to be entirely there.

"Misterioso" (Italian for spooky), a blues first recorded by The Seer in 1948, is built on tick-tock melodic intervals reminiscent of Leroy Anderson's perennial light-classical favorite "The Syncopated Clock" (1945). It also reflects Monk's fascination with the whole-tone scale, a device that dates back to Mozart, was favored by gloomy 19th-century Russians, and flowered in true painterly fashion with Debussy and the Impressionists.

This performance, though, primarily showcases non-metafisica tenorman Johnny Griffin, who solos first for 3 minutes with Monk's backing, then perseveres for another 3˝ minutes as the-never-entirely-there Thelonious goes on break. Griffin's agonized grunts reflect not only his growing weariness during an overlong solo, but ours too in enduring it. By the time Monk returns for a mostly one-handed two-minute solo, both the tempo and inspiration level have lagged. An awkward tape slice at the 9˝-minute mark underscores the tempo issue, as the ensuing thematic restatement reboots the metronome several clicks higher. By then, however, we're grateful for whatever was left on the cutting-room floor, since it mercifully attenuates this grueling remake. Sometimes, it seems, even a Seer can get lost in his own encroaching shadow.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz

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Related Links

The Dozens: Twelve Essential Thelonious Monk Performances by Steve Greenlee
In Conversation with Johnny Griffin by Ted Panken

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