Les Liasons Dangereuses opens much the way the second half of the 1950s did for Thelonious Monk: bright, bouncy, and upbeat. As Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley writes in the notes he contributed to the 48-page booklet that accompanies this unexpected two-LP set, the bebop giant was having great years in 1957 and 1958. He was finally endorsed by critics and embraced by audiences, on the strength of such albums as Brilliant Corners and Monk’s Music and his soon-to-be legendary quartet and quintet stints at the Five Spot Café in New York. And he was being recruited by Marcel Romano, on behalf of director Roger Vadim, to write music for the upcoming film Les Liasons Dangereuses.
“Rhythm-a-Ning”—the first track of the first LP of this never-before-released music recorded by Monk in the Nola Penthouse Sound Studios, New York City, on July 27, 1959—is as brisk and buoyant as Monk must have felt a year earlier. His quartet of that moment, with Sam Jones on double bass, Art Taylor on drums, and Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, is joined by French tenor man Barney Wilen, and the nearly six-minute romp is quintessential uptempo Monk bebop. A midtempo “Well, You Needn’t” closes side one in a jaunty mood, and on side two “Ba-Lue-Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are” lopes along with a wry smile.
But the other seven selections on LP #1 find the then-41-year-old pianist/composer more pensive, etching a breathtaking “Crepuscule with Nellie” with accompaniment by Jones and Wilen, improvising a slow blues (later titled “Six in One”), delivering two solo readings and an extended quartet version (with Rouse) of “Pannonica,” and wrapping up with the only studio recording of “Light Blue” (quartet) and the brief hymn “We’ll Understand It By and By” (with Rouse and Jones faintly shadowing the leader).
The story of how Monk came to record these tracks for Vadim’s film and how it came to pass that they were not issued on the 1960 soundtrack album (which featured music written by Duke Jordan and performed by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers) is as peculiar as the pianist’s melodies and as convoluted as his rhythms. Essayists Kelley, Alain Tercinet, and Brian Priestley tell it well in the photo-laden booklet. We learn how Monk’s infamous 1958 arrest, beating, and institutionalization, and his concomitant bouts of exhaustion and depression crucially shaped the narrative; why he turned to repertoire staples for the score rather than composing new material; and how seven reels of tape from the Tom Nola–produced session were ultimately unearthed when producers Zev Feldman, Françoise Lê Xuân, and Frédéric Thomas went hunting for Barney Wilen recordings.
Disc one contains all the music that Marcel Romano edited for the film. Disc two comprises five alternate takes, plus 14 minutes of Monk working with Taylor and the band on “Light Blue.” This closing, edifying track may not warrant much repeated study, but everything else does, made more rewarding by the remarkably warm, spacious, and defined, if not sharp-edged sound reproduction on 180-gram vinyl—adding up to a phenomenal surprise gift to Monk devotees.