Jazz lizards paid scant attention to Thelonious Monk's 1960s Columbia releases. Where once Monk was revered as a revolutionary, fickle LBJ-era critics and enthusiasts had moved on to the pointy-headed and pompous sounds of Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, and others. The irony, of course, was that most of the "space boys" -- as Sun Ra called them -- were diluted disciples of Monk. The critical inattentiveness was too bad, because what the scribes missed -- as Sony-Legacy's new repackaging of the four mid-'60s Monk releases shows -- was that a master of musical space and time was revisiting his own occasionally ornate work with a renewed and leaner approach.
Underground, from 1967, certainly makes this case. Criss-Cross, from 1963, might be the best of the four discs, stacked as it is with fresh tightly laced spins on Monk chestnuts.
So if the harvest was so good, why did Monk receive the critical cold shoulder? Maybe Columbia's clownish and embarrassing attempts to be "hip" in their cover art rubbed critics the wrong way. Maybe the lucrative contract Monk signed with the big label -- after living like a pauper for decades -- left fans believing he had "sold out." Or perhaps it was Monk's sense of humor.
Whatever the reason, time has been kinder to this segment of Monk's catalog than critics once were. And this might be a second chance for the intelligentsia to get it right.
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