Brilliant Corners

Brilliant Corners

Brilliant Corners is one of just a few Monk recordings to feature the pianist-composer in a mentor role to Sonny Rollins, then an emerging tenor saxophone great. Rollins had made a breakthrough sideman performance with Bud Powell in 1949, and a year or so after this 1956 session, Monk would form a brief but seismic alliance with another great emerging tenor of the time, John Coltrane. There was something about Monk’s thorny writing that challenged tenor players and brought them closer to realizing their own visions as improvisers. Look no further than the leadoff title track, “Brilliant Corners,” to hear the kinds of harmonic, rhythmic, and formal demands that Monk’s music could entail. The story goes that the band played take after unsatisfactory take until producer Orrin Keepnews ended up splicing together a usable one. But the music that emerges is still extraordinary: a strange and slow melody that stumbles upon itself before—surprise!—relaunching at twice the speed, only to grind to a near halt again for the next chorus. Soloists have no choice but to grip the rollercoaster tightly, but they uncover fascinating secrets along the way. Bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Max Roach do their masterful rhythm section thing through it all. On most of the set, Rollins splits saxophone duties with altoist Ernie Henry, though trumpeter Clark Terry and bassist Paul Chambers come on board for the closing “Bemsha Swing.” Roach’s use of timpani on that track and Monk’s use of celeste on the ballad “Pannonica” speak to a pursuit of unusual tone colors and aesthetic left turns on the album. The solo piano number “I Surrender, Dear” brings Monk’s offbeat interpretive sense into full view. But the centerpiece might be the long, slow blues “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are,” where Monk’s spacious, economical pianism reveals a deep debt to late-’30s Count Basie. Rollins, meanwhile, taps into a mood not unlike his classic “Blue 7” from Saxophone Colossus, which he’d just recorded a few months before.

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