When Thelonious Monk recorded “The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall” in 1959, his career was at a peak, no longer a sometimes derided outsider, Monk had finally emerged as a ‘living legend’, and a recognized leading architect of modern jazz. The concert, at which ‘at Town Hall’ was recorded, received much attention because this was to be Monk’s first attempt at presenting his music in a big band format. Initial critical reception to Monk’s big band performance was somewhat tepid. Many felt that Monk’s band members didn’t really get his music, nor his feel for rhythm, but many years later, after our eardrums have been pummeled with barbaric volume, such idiosyncrasies are probably barely noticeable anymore, ha. But seriously, this recording has aged well, and although Monk’s orchestrations are not particularly revelatory, the combined effort of all the musicians on here results in an imaginative, if somewhat quirky, late 50s hard bop LP.
To get help orchestrating his first big band album, Monk enlisted longtime fan and big band arranger, Hal Overton. The two worked painstakingly on several Monk originals before they called in a band for some rehearsals and then the concert/recording. Despite his well deserved reputation as a composer and innovator, Monk’s orchestrations are not particularly remarkable, but as can be expected, a little bit odd. The choice of instruments favors the low end sounds, and Monk uses this to paint dark murky colors. Similar to his piano playing, much of Monk’s ensemble arrangements are almost simple and plain. His best use of the orchestra comes when he is able to add contrasting lines to his melodies, lines that were often only implied by his piano.
A big plus on here is Monk’s band mates, a virtual all-star crew of jazz talent at that time, including; Donald Byrd, Phil Woods, Charley Rouse, Pepper Adams and more. Phil Woods in particular shines with his ‘bird like’ flight on “Friday the 13th”. On “Little Rootie Tootie”, the entire front line of the band plays Monk’s original recorded solo as a unison solo. The end result of so many horns trying to stay together on such a jaggedy solo results in some humorous train wrecks. Monk’s playing is brilliant throughout, but especially on “Monk’s Mood” where his rhythmic shifts produce almost hallucinogenic effects. Overall, this isn’t one of Monk’s best, but it still rates high in his discography, and due to the big band format, partly as a curiosity.