Thelonious Monk • Straight, No Chaser

Columbia/Impex Records IMP6020
180-gram double-record set



by John Crossett | November 7, 2014

helonious Monk’s Straight, No Chaser is the pinnacle of his recordings for Columbia Records. It was his eighth for the label, and there would be only two more official releases before Monk and Columbia parted ways. By this point in 1967, he and his bandmates, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales, and drummer Ben Riley, had been playing together for a number of years and this showed in the near-telepathic way they played with and off each other. It also meant that they knew Monk’s music inside and out -- no small feat -- so they could improvise at will. Much of this album was of older Monk tunes, the title coming from one of his most widely recorded and praised compositions. Not that that was a huge surprise as he tended to recycle his music over and over. But what would for almost anyone else have become tediously repetitious as the years rolled by, for Monk, the inveterate innovator, it managed to always sound fresh -- as if he had written the tunes just for that particular session.

Given that copies of the original LP are plentiful in used record stores the country over and they sound very good, what makes this Impex double-LP reissue worth its premium price? How about an additional 29 minutes of music that never made it onto the original LP? Yep, for the very first time vinyl fans have what has, until now, been the exclusive domain of digital versions. This bonus material consists of full-length versions of the original numbers and two bonus tracks, including one complete song, "Green Chimneys." This isn't material of interest only to completists. It provides greater insight into each number, which now exists as it was played and recorded.

There are always going to be tradeoffs when you are dealing with reissues of albums as old as this one, now celebrating its forty-seventh birthday. Magnetic tapes age and wear with time and with that aging comes sonic degradation. The trick is minimizing any losses while accentuating the positives to create an LP that at the very worst is the sonic equal of the original and at the very best surpasses it. Here we get more of the latter, along with the bonus of the added material. The original and reissue do not sound exactly the same. Impex gives us a better rendering of Monk’s piano and Riley’s drums, which both sound clearer and more detailed. Gales' bass, while deeper on the original, is a bit less defined than on the Impex version. It’s Rouse’s tenor where the differences are most noticeable. On the original, Rouse has a sense of separation and space around him that is lacking a bit on the Impex, although both offer excellent tone and timbre. But when you buy a Monk album, it’s Monk you are paying to hear, and the Impex reissue brings his contributions more front and center, making him sound more in-the-room.

What Impex has added to this now double-LP set could have been done originally if Columbia hadn’t cheaped out and released a single LP. Once you’ve heard the full tunes, the original album sounds like the cut-and-paste job it was. That is what makes this Impex reissue such a treasure.

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