"Paris 1969" by Thelonius Monk. (Blue Note Records )
Is a document of an artist in the twilight of his career as vital as one that captures his prime?
That's the key question in "Thelonious Monk: Paris 1969," a new DVD-CD combo that functions as a companion piece of sorts for the bittersweet "Straight No Chaser," a 1988 documentary assembled from footage of Monk and his band in 1968.
In "Paris 1969," Monk is the lion in winter. His health is declining, his rhythm section of Ben Riley and Larry Gales had just quit, and all that remains of his longtime band is saxophonist Charlie Rouse, who looks a bit detached from the proceedings. Backing Monk are unknowns handpicked by the master: the vigorously mustachioed Berklee student bassist Lloyd Hygelund and drummer Paris Wright, who excitedly — maybe even a bit nervously — swings along at the age of 17.
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Still, this is Thelonious Monk, a one-of-a-kind artist whose influence casts one of the largest shadows across jazz piano and composition. Nearly any chance to see him work will offer some surprises. Though a long way from the dancing, elbow-on-the-keyboard dynamo occasionally seen in "Straight No Chaser," he still cascades through a melancholy "Ruby My Dear" like nobody else, his hands punching and feathering through a lovely solo. Monk caroms beautifully through unaccompanied runs at "Don't Blame Me" and "Crepuscule With Nellie," and "Epistrophy" finds Wright weaving behind the song's indelible, ever-advancing melody.
In the unquestionable highlight, a gaunt Philly Joe Jones sits in and puts on a clinic in crackling swing on a 10-minute "Nutty" that gives the set a welcome jolt. A second collaboration, "Blue Monk," exists only as a minute-long tease, an unfortunate editing casualty of the show, which aired on French TV.
At just over an hour, "Paris 1969" may not show Monk at his best, but it shows Monk, in all his battered, unmatched brilliance. Sometimes that's enough.
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