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Thelonius Monk's Brilliant Corners On Small Batch 180 Gram LP from Craft Recordings

09-13-2023 | By Tom Gibbs | Issue 129

Thelonious Monk's 1957 classic Brilliant Corners marks the fifth release in Craft Recordings' Small Batch LP series. The Small Batch series utilizes a one-step lacquer process (versus the standard three-step process) that allows for a significantly improved level of musical detail, clarity, and dynamics, while greatly reducing surface and groove noise that might otherwise be present in the finished LP. Small Batch LPs are pressed at RTI using Neotech VR900 High Definition vinyl, and are strictly limited to 4,000 copies worldwide. All Small Batch LPs are fully all-analog, 180 gram, AAA pressings that have been cut from the original master tapes by Bernie Grundman. The level of quality Craft employs with the Small Batch series guarantees that each record will offer the listener an LP playback experience that's as close to the original recording as possible.

Each Small Batch LP is individually numbered and encased in a foil-stamped, embossed, linen-wrapped slipcase with a beautiful high-gloss acrylic inset of the original cover artwork. The slipcase design features a unique, frictionless ribbon pull tab that allows for effortless removal of the LP jacket from the protective outer shell. It's among the most unusual packages for a high-end LP release I've yet encountered, but it's handsome, exceptionally well-executed, and works flawlessly. The LP's tip-on jacket features the original artwork pulled from Riverside Records' vault, although I would have preferred that it had the high-gloss coating found on many of  Craft's recent OJC reboot reissues, which for a premium title such as this would have been a very nice uptick. The 180 gram LP is inserted into an archival-quality, anti-static, non-scratching inner sleeve; I can't overemphasize what a nice touch that is, and reissues of this caliber (and the audiophile who buys it) deserve no less! Each Small Batch LP also features a detailed insert with new liner notes and technical information; Brilliant Corners features brilliant (pun intended) new notes from Grammy Award-winning music historian, journalist, and producer Ashley Kahn.

At the point of its release, Brilliant Corners was the most important album of Monk's career, and received a significant level of critical acclaim. DownBeat called it "the most critically acclaimed jazz album of 1957," and the magazine's own Nat Hentoff proclaimed it "Riverside's most important modern jazz LP to date." Brilliant Corners was among the first 50 recordings chosen for the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry, and it also was included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. I'd say that level of praise definitely merits a Craft Small Batch, one-step, high definition vinyl pressing! 

Thelonius Monk, Brilliant Corners. 180 Gram Craft Recordings Small Batch LP, $109.00 MSRP

Brilliant Corners was Thelonius Monk's third album for the Riverside imprint, and was his first for the label to feature his own compositions. This album presaged his work with the up-and-coming saxophonist John Coltrane, but for these sessions Monk surrounded himself with a stellar cast of studio musicians. Monk of course was at the piano, but he also played the celeste on "Pannonica." Ernie Henry and Sonny Rollins doubled on the saxes, Oscar Pettiford and Paul Chambers shared the upright bass chores, Clark Terry played trumpet, and drummer extraordinaire Max Roach manned the kit, while also playing tympani on "Bemsha Swing." The recording took place at New York's Reeves Sound Studios, and were scattered over a couple of months in late 1956; the sessions were produced by Orrin Keepnews, with engineer Jack Higgins at the controls. 

Monk's compositions had a level of complexity that challenged the musicians in the studio; they figured that out during the recording of the side one opener and title track, "Brilliant Corners." After many attempts, they still didn't have an acceptable take; Oscar Pettiford and Ernie Henry almost came to blows with Monk over his insistence that they play the tune to his liking. It all came to naught; producer Orrin Keepnews ended up reconstructing the final version for the album from multiple studio takes. In his original liner notes for the album release, Keepnews stated that "Musicians could save themselves a lot of trouble by not recording with Monk—but it's a form of trouble that a great many of the best men have long considered a privilege (as well as an education)." Monk challenged his sidemen to see beyond and embrace the beauty of his non-traditional music. Two-thirds of the way through the tune, Max Roach pounds out a driving, off-kilter drum solo that's perhaps one of the best on record—he definitely responded to Monk's challenge!

"Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are" was written for Monk's patron, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who often threw parties of excess at her residence in New York's Bolivar Hotel, eventually getting her evicted. Monk's affectated form of speaking resulted in the song's actual title, "Blue Bolivar Blues," being pronounced phonetically as it's spelled on the album. The rhythmically challenging, but lengthy side one closer is as complicated for the players as its name suggests, but they pull it off with aplomb aplenty. Side two opens uncharacteristically with Monk on celeste, playing "Pannonica," another paeon to the Baroness. As the song proceeds, Ernie Henry and Sonny Rollins duet beautifully on saxes, as Monk switches back to piano in a number that's become one of his signature tunes. Barry Harris' "I Surrender Dear" is the only non-original on the album, and Monk takes a solo turn here; it's a clinic in his quirky style at the keyboard. The closer, "Bemsha Swing," is a 16-bar blowing session that adds trumpeter Clark Terry to the complement of horns, with Max Roach propelling the tune along as he pounds on the tympani.  

The Small Batch LPs offer an exceptional listening experience

As always, if you click on my name in the header, you can see the equipment I used to evaluate this classic LP. As Brilliant Corners is a mono recording, I used the Rega Planar 2 turntable that's equipped with an Ortofon 2M Mono cartridge, which played into a Sutherland KC Vibe phono preamp. That fed my PrimaLuna EVO 300 tube integrated amplifier, which in turn powered the KLH Model Five loudspeakers. It's a very modern system with a vintage sonic vibe, especially with vinyl playback. The PrimaLuna amp offers the choice of triode or ultralinear playback on the fly; triode seems to offer a more nuanced and detailed presentation with greater emphasis on the midrange, whereas ultralinear offers a bit more punch where the music demands it. For this totally acoustic music, I listened to both, but settled on triode mode, which I felt offered a greater degree of overall clarity to the performances.

I play a lot of mono records, so I have a dedicated turntable setup with a mono cartridge, which provides definite advantages during playback. The Ortofon 2M Mono cartridge only produces a single signal, which is directed to both channels in the system, and it only responds to signals in the horizontal plane, which means that there's no noise induced from stylus movement in the vertical plane. Mono cartridges are basically impervious to noise from dust and dirt in the groove, and record wear is substantially reduced. This results in the kind of noiseless reproduction of mono LPs that simply cannot be achieved by the use of a preamp's mono switch. It's an essential setup for listening to classic mono sides, regardless of the genre.

These classic Riverside monos provide the kind of glorious wide mono sound that jazz dreams are made of. The Small Batch version of Brilliant Corners bested my OJC LP from the mid-nineties in every possible way; the difference was literally night and day. My review copy was perfectly flat, with beautiful, glossy surfaces and no imperfections—typical for LPs sourced from RTI, and the Neotech VR900 vinyl is a huge step up in overall quietness during playback. The sound quality of the Craft Small Batch LP was beyond reproach; you could literally visualize the players in the soundfield in front of you, and they played with a level of palpability and musicality most people don't associate with mono recordings. If you're a fan of Monk, you don't want to miss this; this is the LP version of Brilliant Corners you'll want in your collection. The Small Batch titles—especially a great one like this release—tend to sell out very quickly, so don't hesitate if you're the least bit interested. Now we just need to convince Craft to release this album's follow-up, the equally classic Monk's Music as a Small Batch title! This release comes very highly recommended!

Craft Recordings


All images courtesy of Craft Recordings