“[It’s] one of the best live recordings I’ve ever heard by Thelonious…I wasn’t even aware of my dad playing a high school gig, but he and the band were on it.” So says T.S. Monk, son of groundbreaking jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. “When I first heard the tape, from the first measure, I knew my father was feeling really good.” The younger Monk is talking about Palo Alto, a newly unearthed concert recorded October 27, 1968 which will be released for the first time ever on July 31 through Impulse! Records.
The circumstances surrounding the concert are as fascinating as the pianist himself, involving a high school International Committee, a 16-year-old budding concert promoter, and a janitor with a passion for audio recording.
Monk had been invited to play at Palo Alto High School by Danny Scher, who had already organized concerts there with Vince Guaraldi, Jon Hendricks, and Cal Tjader. But getting his idol, the elusive Thelonious Monk, to play at the school would prove a new challenge. The pianist was under new management and faced significant financial and health troubles. And, against the backdrop of the unrest of 1968, school administrators feared escalation of racial tensions. As Scher recalls in his liner notes for Palo Alto, “I was warned by the police department in our neighboring predominantly black city, East Palo Alto, to not put up posters in their community.” The warning was ignored.
People also wondered whether the mercurial Monk would show up to the gig. He was doing a three-week stint at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop at the time and, according to Scher, was worried he’d miss his evening obligation at the club if he played the high school gig. Unable to drive, Scher had his brother pick up Monk and the band (tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales, drummer Ben Riley) and return them in time for the San Francisco show. Incredibly, the sold-out show was recorded by the high school’s janitor who asked to tape it in return for tuning the piano.
The resulting 47-minute album features a dynamic mix of originals and standards. Monk’s signature tunes “Ruby My Dear,” “Well, You Needn’t,” and “Blue Monk,” are all given spirited workouts with dazzling solos from the whole band, proving their expert facilitation of dynamic opportunities and melodic adventures throughout. Monk’s solos often rock from straight-ahead scales presented in his unique stride style, to off-kilter and lightning-fast interpolations of familiar themes, and of course plenty of pleasant dissonance. Even on standards like “Don’t Blame Me” and the exquisite and brief “I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams,” Monk makes the familiar his own with beautiful harmonic substitutions and exciting solos.
The album will be released on CD and LP on the same day, July 31. The LP boasts a truly deluxe presentation with a gatefold sleeve, printed inners, a booklet with liner notes by Robin D. G. Kelley (author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original), plus reproductions of the original concert poster and program. For fans of color vinyl, the subscription program Vinyl Me Please offers an exclusive variant on transparent orange swirl vinyl.
You can get a taste of the show with “Epistrophy,” available to stream now. It’s a piece that spotlights Monk’s love for dissonance, full of minor-second intervals and non-chord tones that give the piece an air of confusion, especially when played in as frenzied a manner as it is here. As delightful as it is dizzying, the rendition is a perfect example of what makes Monk such an interesting composer and performer. It’s no wonder Impulse! selected it as the lead single.
Palo Alto is a lost treasure that Monk’s fans are sure to enjoy. It’s available now to pre-order on CD and LP for release on July 31. Find the links below and enjoy the preview of “Epistrophy”!
Thelonious Monk, Palo Alto (Impulse! Records/UMe, 2020)
- Ruby, My Dear (7:00)
- Well, You Needn’t (13:16)
- Don’t Blame Me (6:36)
- Blue Monk (14:02)
- Epistrophy (4:26)
- I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams (2:02)
Recorded live at Palo Alto High School, Palo Alto, CA, October 27, 1968