Off-Ramp | Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

Peter Stenshoel's Album of the Week: School Days

For all the tribute bands and endless deconstruction exercises revolving around Thelonious Monk's corpus, none of it seems as lasting and significant as Monk's own recordings.  The exception is this little-known gem from Emanem Records.  In the fifties and sixties, Steve Lacy, the late soprano saxophonist, took it upon himself to study Monk's compositions in detail, playing them with an exhaustive adherence to the originals.  Sensing a consistency to the work, Lacy wanted to understand its architecture through and through.  In meeting trombonist Roswell Rudd, Lacy met a fellow traveler whose passions matched his own, and The Steve Lacy Quartet was born.

When Emanem released School Days in 1975, no document of this important band had yet been released.  Labels sat on their recordings of them.  Luckily, Vashkar Nandi and Paul Haines took it upon themselves to record this live performance at the Phase Two Coffee House in 1963.  Despite the fact it is a single microphone recording, the balance is surprisingly good.

Caught in the middle of its life, the band catches the perfect balance between freedom and fidelity to Monk's music.  Bassist Henry Grimes arrived late to the gig, so "Bye-Ya" and the surviving half of "Pannonica" are fleshed out all the more charmingly by just sax, 'bone, and drum.  The lack of a pianist--in a group playing a pianist's compositions--works better than expected.  I believe that's because the paucity of a chording instrument forces the group to extend themselves--New Orleans jazz style--to fill in what would be piano chords.

The videos I found on Youtube of Lacy and Rudd together lack the crisp recording quality of the record.  In the meantime, here's Steve Lacy playing Monk's tune, "Shuffle Boil."