Now, I may have just mentioned it in passing once or twice, but I’m big on sleevenotes. In this case though I’m a bit cross because they’ve just done a far better job of summing up Thelonious Monk Criss-Cross than I ever will. Take it away Nica De Koenigswarter:
Ah well, not too much for me to add then, turn out the light when you go Nica. Okay, I’ll stop sulking, the baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica Koenigswarter really knew what she was talking about, she was known as ‘the jazz baroness’ after all. I heard a fascinating Radio 4 documentary on her years ago. Born a Rothschild she married a French Baron, split with him in ’51 and moved to New York. Legend has it that a friend played her Monk’s version of ‘Round Midnight’ and she made her play it 20 time over, missed her ‘plane and stayed in the city. She became a patron and keen amateur photographer, of amongst others Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, who also became a close friend, hosting jam sessions and lending them her Rolls Royce and chauffeur to get to gigs. In fact Charlie Parker died in her rooms at the Stanhope Hotel. She just loved the music and championed it with all her influence whenever and wherever she could. She even took criminal responsibility when she and Monk were busted for possession. After Monk retired from the public eye he lived in her house, where he lived until he died in ’82. The original 1962 LP has eight tracks, the CD (and Spotify) versions add others, the first of which is Monk’s composition ‘Pannonica’, named for his friend.
So what about Criss-Cross then? it is a happy LP, a lot of uptempo bop. Frankie Dunlop and John Ore are, as you have a right to expect from any jazz of this era, an exceptional rhythm section, tight and light. Charlie Rouse plays rousing tenor sax throughout, never overshadowing the tunes herein. Monk shows his artistry all the while, playing with the melodies of standards such as ‘Tea For Two’ and ‘Don’t Blame Me’, always eschewing the obvious notes, chords and phrasing and seemingly finding something better each time. It’s less evident in these recordings but I have always loved the way that Monk uses silences and space in his playing, understanding I think, that sometimes what you’re not playing is more important than what you are playing. It is this and his more percussive approach that mark him out for me from his contemporary Bill Evans who I always find smoother and more measured. My favourites on Criss-Cross are the carefully woven title track where his improvisations over the rhythm, especially towards the end are just joyous and the spacious ‘Don’t Blame Me’, where his playing is ostensibly very conventional and lyrical but when, if you listen carefully you can just hear some really offbeat chords and notes, there’s a playfulness here that’s damn refreshing the sound of someone at the top of his game, having fun with us and our sense of what goes where. Needless to say that Teo Macero’s production is flawless, capturing all the intricacies of the sound, but losing nothing of the, considerable, warmth within.
The other track which really interests me is the fabulously named ‘Crepuscle With Nellie’, written for his wife. It is simply a gorgeous piece of music, light as the air from which Monk seems to just pluck the notes. Starting almost with a blues based introduction, the quartet gently waft you airborne without your knowing and by the time that the ‘last, lovely chords’* have faded you find yourself stretched out on a cloud, surveying a perfectly tranquil world from a state of bliss. The subtlety of the backing is quite remarkable on this track too. Absolutely top hole!
Then we’re back at the beginning again ready to blast ‘Hackensack’ one more time, ready for that fast charge forwards. There really I something a bit magic about the playing on Criss-Cross. What? no, don’t tell em she got there first again …
389 Down. *that Nica woman again!