Revealing a rare upside to governmental ineptitude, At Carnegie Hall languished on the shelves of the Library Of Congress for 47 years before an archivist happened upon a handwritten "T. Monk" label and rescued a magisterial 1957 recording to be heard anew. The live ghost of Thelonious Monk's group with John Coltrane has haunted a CD called Live At The Five Spot for a few years, but At Carnegie Hall trumps that murky bootleg with crystalline sound and a wider variety of moods. It's a stunning document of a top jazz band in top form.
Most striking about Monk's playing at the time is how rigorously lost and strange it still sounds. Full of gangly gatherings of notes arranged in dissonant clusters, Monk's piano style is as beastly as it is beautiful. He starts in a meditative mode with "Monk's Mood," fanning tender and tough runs over a keyboard that sounds tuned by calculated illogic. When "Evidence" kicks in right after, he's simply slamming isolated chords and letting the space between elide them into a melodic whole. Monk often sounds halting and weird, but the way ideas so abstract and clinical translate to such stirring terms stands as a grand testament to his musical thinking.
And then there's Coltrane. At a sort of career crossroads—between stints in Miles Davis' band and around the same time as his own Blue Train album—the saxophonist sounds both cerebral and soothed alongside Monk. He's wonderful as a tonal accent, stalking Monk's serpentine patterns note-for-note in "Crepuscule With Nellie," and eerily controlled in solos that slip outside the lines. Coltrane first announces his presence as the set starts to cook with "Nutty," uncorking a frantic solo that stretches the melody just short of the breaking point before snapping back to reassert its gravity. He sounds buoyant in "Bye-Ya," and dizzy in the wake of Monk's elliptical playing in "Sweet And Lovely." It shouldn't come as a great surprise to hear that Monk and Coltrane were pretty good jazz players, but At Carnegie Hall shows how bountifully surprising received wisdom can still be.