Thelonious Monk’s Straight, No Chaser was the first jazz album I called a favorite. My friends’ father worked in the Musicland warehouse years ago, where on occasion employees were invited to Saturday morning sales of surplus promotional material. Bob would bring his two sons and I to dig through cardboard flats of cassettes and CDs – Mostly I would buy cassettes, mostly classic rock groups that in those days weren’t aging well.
One Saturday, a particularly bizarre cover caught my eye and I came home with a disc of Straight, No Chaser.
This was around the time Columbia had just begun reissuing its classic jazz catalog with additional material and pleasing asthetics – Other discs in the series which I bought over the next year included Kind of Blue, Time Out and Duke Ellington’s collection of Shakespeare-inspired musical sonnets, Such Sweet Thunder. In the early 90s, listeners like myself stumbled slavishly to record stores to buy CDs with bonus track as though we were zombies – Sometimes we bought albums we already owned, just to hear an “acoustic live demo alternative take with strings”.
I can think of a lot of good songs that came out of all those bonus tracks, but now I can also see how it changed a lot of classic records irreparably. “Spider” John Koerner’s oldest son once told me he didn’t like the CD issue of Running, Jumping, Standing Still because it didn’t end with “Good Night” anymore, and although I didn’t see that at the time I’ve grown to understand.
At any rate, I had invested an entire dollar in that disc and I was going to listen to it a few times -
The album opens with “Locomotive”, which like a lot of the material Monk recorded for Columbia in the 60s, was an original number he had performed on an earlier record. In this case, however, it was a number recorded only once before and it took on an entirely original feel with Monk’s great 60s quartet.
Some reviews of this album suggest the rhythm section’s rigidity on “Locomotive” inhibits Monk and tenor Charlie Rouse, but that seems to be missing the point. Its a train song and trains are not especially known for their flexibility. “Locomotive” moves like a locomotive, and in that sense it fits well within jazz’s lineage of train songs – like “Take the A Train” or “Night Train” it chugs along on a steady, pulsating rhythm. I think drummer Ben Riley’s work on this track is actually pretty remarkable, because he keeps that going but also accents both soloists subtly. He is particularly good during Rouse’s solo, where he has to follow both the tenor and Monk’s peculiar chord-based comping. I have grown to think of the 1966 recording of “Locomotive” as far superior to Monk’s original Prestige record, and as one of jazz’s best train songs.
Monk played with Rouse, Riley and bassist Larry Gales extensively at this time, each having a tenure with him of at least four years – Other bassists and drummers sometimes made up the quartet, including John Ore and Frank Dunlop, but they never made up as tight a quartet as this one. I have long been biased towards Monk’s Columbia recordings with Riley, but I can’t explain why I like the drummer so much except that he seems to fit well with Monk and Rouse. Charlie Rouse is, of course, a terribly overlooked tenor, although there’s really nothing else in his catalog to compare with his recordings with Monk. He really stands out on several of Monk’s albums, including Monk, a set of standards, and on Underground where he and Monk seem more in tune with each other than ever.
The second track on the album is a seldom-played Ellington piece, “I Didn’t Know About You”. I didn’t know that there were lyrics until years later, and first heard Johnny Hartman’s version recorded for Impulse! in the middle 60s. There are a lot of different recordings of it with vocalists, but few instrumentals which is a shame – Monk’s recording really highlights its unusual, distinctly Ellingtonian melody.
Side A concludes with the title track, an extended and particularly enthusiastic recording of the title track – Like “Round Midnight” its a Monk composition that had developed its own life by the time Monk revisited it during his Columbia tenure. Monk’s best Columbia-era recording of “Round Midnight” was a solo piece but this recording of “Straight, No Chaser” really highlights his quartet – Rouse, Dunlop and Riley all played with Monk for four years or more, although their various tenures didn’t entirely overlap (unfortunately).
There are now more recordings of “Straight, No Chaser” than I imagine any of us would like to count. Around the same time Monk was recording it for this album, Quincy Jones put together a brassy arrangement for his only Impulse! album, The Quintessence, which happens to be the next album lined up for our “Great Albums” series. It has also turned up in various acid jazz and hip hop arrangements, and has become perhaps Monk’s most visible composition (The 1988 documentary film about Thelonious Monk, Straight, No Chaser, pretty much cemented the song’s status as his preeminent piece).
I have not included anything from Side B of Straight, No Chaser for you. I have also not included anything from the soundtrack to the documentary because, regrettably, I seem to have misplaced my copy. I seem also to have misplaced the Columbia Legacy reissue CD of Straight, No Chaser I bought from the Musicland warehouse fifteen years ago. The disc had several additional tracks and also presented some tracks in their original unedited state (Seems Columbia had to trim down “Locomotive” and “Straight, No Chaser” to fit them on the LP). I suppose I regret selling or giving away the disc now, but maybe somebody else out there is writing about it for his record store thanks to my generosity. Yes, that seems pretty likely.
One of the bonus tracks from that disc was a solo piece titled “This Is My Story, This Is My Song”. At the time, most of what I listened to was classic rock and metal and punk rock, so my best point of reference for a piece like this was Hüsker Dü’s “Monday Will Never Be the Same”, another deceptively simplistic solo piano recording. The CD’s liner notes identify it as a “previously unissued” recording, but it did appear on Always Know, a 1979 Columbia double-LP of unissued tracks. Here it is, recorded from Always Know. Maybe somebody out there with a copy of the CD could compare the recordings and we’d know if there were two separate takes, which seems likely.
The Columbia two-fer which included “This Is My Story, This Is My Song” had a lot of other great tracks which must have been eventually added to other Monk albums as bonus material. For your listening pleasure, here is a highlight from them, a 1962 recording with Rouse, John Ore and Frankie Dunlop titled “Coming on the Hudson”: