Thelonious Monk, Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 (Sam Records/Saga)
In the summer of 1959 in New York, Thelonious Monk recorded music for the sound track of the Roger Vadim film Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Adapted loosely from a 1782 novel by Choderlos de Laclos, the film’s erotic nature led elements of the French literary establishment to insist that “1960” be appended to the title.
Having seen pre-production sections of the film starring Jeanne Moreau and Gerard Phillipe, Monk had its story and moods in mind, but he did not write original music for it. He and his quartet—and on some tracks guest tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen—recorded pieces from his established repertoire of the late 1950s. The impression from repeated hearings is that despite the legal and financial troubles Monk faced during the period he, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Sam Jones, drummer Art Taylor and Wilen took a serious approach that did not rule out joviality. Monk’s own playing has frequent lighthearted turns on two takes each of “Rhythm-a-Ning” and “Well, You Needn’t.”
He plays alone, movingly, on two short versions of “Pannonica,” the composition he named for the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who is often described as his patron. The album also includes the quartet in an extended version of the tune. The baroness appears in booklet photos taken at the sessions, as does Monk’s wife Nellie. Monk plays a reflective introduction to “Crepuscule With Nellie.” It is easy to hear the performance as a declaration of devotion to the partner who shared the hard times of his early career.
Taylor and Jones were in Monk’s quartet for a fairly short period in 1959, but they lock up firmly with Monk and Rouse. Rouse is still feeling his way in what was to become a partnership that lasted a decade, but he asserts himself with muscle and bebop fluency, notably so on the second version of “Well, You Needn’t.”
The 56-page booklet accompanying the album puts in perspective the making of the film and how Monk came to be chosen for the music. It has essays by scholars Alain Tercinet and Laurent Guenoun, Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley, jazz scholar Brian Priestley and album producer Zev Feldman. The booklet also has 20 pages of photographs, most taken at the recording session at Nola’s Penthouse Studios.
A group of musicians that included Kenny Dorham, Duke Jordan, Barney Wilen and Kenny Clarke appears in a nightclub scene in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers are heard on the soundtrack, but neither of those sequences is a part of the Monk album. The film, released in 1960, is shown in its entirety on YouTube.
This is near the top of the list of previously unreleased jazz discoveries.