Although nostalgia has allowed Monk's Blues to age more gracefully than perhaps the recording deserves, it remains an unfortunate fact that Thelonious Sphere Monk's final studio sessions were very poorly conceived. The idea of Monk performing with a big band was inspired nobly enough by the February 1959 performance at New York City's Town Hall, issued as Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall. These studio recordings fall far short of that classic live encounter.
However, there are a few brief moments of inspiration that were not overcome by random blasts from the hollow-sounding horn section. The challenge of arranging Monk for big-band instrumentation fell upon Oliver Nelson, whose best-remembered works include an array of theme songs for television shows -- Ironside, Columbo, and The Six Million Dollar Man among them.
Many of the same techniques are likewise incorporated into the approach Nelson uses on Monk's Blues. Perhaps it is cosmically fitting that the sessions were held at Columbia studios in Tinseltown. There are a few write-offs. "Rootie Tootie" is destroyed by an overwrought brass section that completely drowns Monk. "Consecutive Seconds" -- one of the two compositions penned by producer Teo Macero -- is simply abysmal. If this was an attempt to get Monk to play soul music, it failed. It does succeed in sounding embarrassingly dated, however. Monk's genius shines through on some of the more sensible and sensitive arrangements, such as "Reflections," "Monk's Point," and the surprisingly tasteful "Brilliant Corners." The 1994 CD edition adds two performances not featured on the vinyl incarnation.
"Blue Monk" features a stirring solo from Monk. "'Round Midnight" is a previously unissued solo side cut at the Monk's Blues sessions. The sheer brilliance in Monk's emotive and seemingly frustrated intonations may well be an exorcism for the sins of the rest of the album.by Lindsay Planer