Craft Recordings is an ambitious new reissue label for Concord Bicycle Music. Considering how much music Concord has access to, that’s worth noting, especially because Craft Recordings promises thoughtfully-curated projects and high production standards. With the launching of such an ambitious new label, the first release better be impressive—and Craft’s new three-LP vinyl edition of The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings of Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane certainly qualifies. When I spoke to the president of Craft Recordings, Sig Sigworth, he explained the goals of Concord’s new imprint.
“We’re trying to launch Craft Recordings with something that is significant, historical, and beautifully packaged,” he said. “It’s what we have to do in today’s market. You have to tell a story, and in our case retell a story, in a unique way. And whether that’s from the nature of liner notes or the packaging itself or the format or whatever, that’s our responsibility. So you have to come up with a creative way to retell the story and engage consumers. That’s why it’s called Craft.”
For Sigworth, part of the story behind this prestigious vinyl box set dates back to the experience he had while working as executive producer on the recently released Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary. It was then that he became aware of the special musical connection established between Monk and Trane during their six-month residency at New York’s Five Spot Cafe in the East Village. “That part was fascinating to me,” he added. “I had very misperceived conceptions of John Coltrane and his music, but that connection with Monk explained a lot to me.”
That connection is highlighted in Orrin Keepnews’ liner notes to The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings. “By now Monk and Trane were into the early stages of spending much time together,” Keepnews writes, “and the tenor player has described in more than one interview a musical bonding in which Thelonious would play, rather than try to articulate, the answers to his questions.” As Coltrane recalled in a Down Beat interview, “Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I felt I learned from him in every way.”
Previously issued as a 2-CD set in 2006, The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings is now available as a deluxe 3-LP 180-gram vinyl edition box set remastered from the original analog masters with a collection of rare photos and Orrin Keepnews’ detailed, insightful, behind-the-scenes liner notes of the session (originally written for the 2006 CD release).
With the recordings organized in chronological order, the album opens with an April 12 take of the ballad “Monk’s Mood” by the trio of Monk, Coltrane, and bassist Wilbur Ware. There follow several takes from a June 25 session of Monk’s beautiful “Crepuscule With Nellie” with a septet that includes Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins (Monk’s mentor) on tenor saxes, Monk on piano, Ware on bass, Ray Copeland on trumpet, Gigi Gryce on alto sax, and Art Blakey on drums. The second disc has two takes each of “Off Minor,” the Christian hymn “Abide With Me,” and “Epistrophy.” The third album, from a July session, includes two takes of “Ruby, My Dear” (one with Hawkins on tenor, the other with Coltrane) plus quartet renditions of “Nutty” and “Trinkle, Tinkle” with Monk, Trane, and Ware joined by Shadow Wilson on drums.
The music on The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings is important historically, and it also marks a new development in recording. Keepnews’ liner notes explain how these original Riverside sessions became the label’s first venture into the revolutionary new concept of stereophonic sound. “Our new stereo series had begun with a sound effects disc, so Riverside 1102 was our first stereo jazz album,” he writes. “But we had to deal with the fact that the studio had not yet taken the drastic step of converting to the new process: the installed equipment at Reeves Sound Studios (on 2nd Avenue between 44th and 45th Streets in Manhattan) was still monaural. Thus, we had to improvise a dual system. Studio engineer Jack Higgins presided at his usual control panel; our staff engineer Ray Fowler was in the soundproof isolation booths in the studio with a newfangled portable stereo tape recorder. Thus, on this and several subsequent occasions, ‘binaural’ was an entirely separate operation. Among other things, every musician found himself surrounded by a doubled quantity of microphones.”
With all the music Craft Recordings has access to, you can’t help but wonder what’s in the pipeline. Upcoming releases include a 25th anniversary edition of R.E.M.’s acclaimed 1992 album Automatic for the People and a John Lee Hooker box set marking his centennial.