Thelonious Monk: Monk's Dream
Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2207
Mastered from the Original Master Tapes for Audiophile Sound and Limited to 3,000 Copies: Hybrid SACD of 1963 Set Features Stunning Clarity, Responsiveness, and Presence
The historical import, musical genius, and timeless artistry of Monk's Dream can be best appreciated by first placing the record in the context of its era. In short, Thelonious Monk's joyful Columbia Records debut triggered a domino effect of mainstream attention, best-selling success, and across-the-board respect that led him to become one of only six jazz musicians to ever grace the cover of Time – then America's most widely read weekly magazine. Couple the extraordinary feat with the fact the British Invasion and Beatlemania were already in full swing, and the cultural significance – not to mention its place in the jazz canon – of Monk's Dream skyrockets to near-unthinkable heights.
Mastered from the original master tapes and strictly limited to 3,000 numbered copies, Mobile Fidelity's numbered-edition hybrid SACD pays tribute to the 1963 album's merit and enhances the music for generations to come. Surpassing the sonics even afforded by ORG's long-out-of-print disc and greatly improving on every other version extant, this audiophile-grade collector's edition strips away any lingering audio limitations to provide a clear, transparent, and up-close view of a set that inspired DownBeat to award the record a five-star review in which critic Pete Welding correctly proclaimed it "a stunning reaffirmation of [Monk's] powers as a performer and composer."
Such potency reveals itself as all the more obvious on an SACD afforded stellar reproduction of the multi-layered complexities, challenging tonalities, and nontraditional rhythms that conspire to place Monk's finest outings in a league of their own. Accurately portraying the complete scale of a piano remains one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish on a recording. And yet the sound of Monk's instrument here captures its wide-bandwidth frequency response and inner cavity, allowing notes to individually register all the while pairing with succeeding and decaying chords in seamless fashion. The presence, tones, and contributions of the colleagues surrounding Monk – tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist John Ore, and drummer Frankie Dunlop – come across, too, with a lifelike realism rivaled only by sitting in an intimate club.
Benefitting from the newfound immediacy, clarity, and ink-black backgrounds on Mobile Fidelity's reissue are five originals and three covers that demonstrate the boundless vistas of Monk's vision, aptitude, and inventiveness. As acclaimed scribe Gary Giddins wrote while reminding us the North Carolina native's motto was "jazz is freedom," Monk's Dream exposes his "dauntless concentration, impressive faith, and an almost childlike glee." These traits spark works such as the spry interpretation of "Body and Soul," which Monk handles sans accompaniment, and guide the quirky angles that snake around and shape "Bolivar Blues," the title of which refers to a Manhattan hotel.
Throughout, Monk's Dream conveys an exhilarating freedom that mirrors the improvisational twists, dissonant techniques, and melodic turns Monk embraced not only in the studio (and on the stage) but in everyday life. Considered by some to be too idiosyncratic for his own good, his flawless craftsmanship, underlying irreverence, and deep-seated knowledge of swing, stride, blues, and gospel raise this 1963 album to mythical levels – and let the inner contours, deliberate phrasings, and urgent solos on tracks like "Bye-Ya" and the title cut exhibit new details, themes, and directions with each listen.
Indeed, above everything, Monk's Dream encourages constant exploration and repeat plays. Forever bursting with fresh ideas, it refuses to stand still, instead buzzing with the energy of a city celebrating its internal commotion and dancing to the influences that made its current modernism possible. Monk was just decades ahead of everyone else in figuring out how this seemingly incongruent yet delightfully cool tango sounded. Fortunately for the rest of us, he documented it and called it Monk's Dream.
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Review by Mark Werlin - July 20, 2020
I don’t always go out of my way to collect alternative remasters of recordings – especially SACDs – when I already own a version that I enjoy; Mobile Fidelity is the exception. There isn’t a single instance in my music collection of a remastered jazz or rock SACD where another label’s SACD version sounds better than the MoFi reissue. With that in mind, and prompted by site members who commented favorably about the MoFi SACD of Monk's Dream, I paid the $30.
Did I buy the MoFi disc out of curiosity or dissatisfaction? To be honest: a mix of both. Audiophile jazz collectors are forever paying the price to hear a rediscovered original master tape, or a newer and better-sounding transfer of an old favorite recording.
Multiple versions of the same recording in hand, we compare the qualities of one versus another. But without a trustworthy provenance for the different versions, subjective listening evaluations of analogue-era recordings remastered to SACD inevitably run into a wall of unanswerable questions: what was the source tape; when was that tape transferred, and by whom; did the mastering include an interim high-resolution PCM stage, to allow for equalization or to address tape deterioration artifacts, or was the tape output sent straight to DSD?
When releases are not accompanied by provenance and mastering details, collectors have no objective criteria to make a purchasing decision. In the case of Blue Note reissues in high-res download format, most do not include the name of the mastering engineer or any details about the source tape, information that was generally included on physical copy reissues.
Fortunately, that is not the case in the present release of "Monk's Dream", which MoFi clearly labels "Original Master Recording." That unequivocal designation guided my listening comparison between the MoFi SACD and the ORG SACD.
In my review of the ORG SACD Thelonious Monk Quartet: Monk's Dream, I wrote:
"The ORG SACD sounds analogue-like, slightly rolled off on the top, detailed and warm. But the provenance of the tape, the name of the remastering engineer, and the method of transfer to DSD are not included in the SACD liner notes or posted on ORG's website or their distributor's website, so your ears will have to be your guide."
Because I do not own two identical SACD players, there was the only way for me to do a listening comparison; a method we are not permitted to discuss on this site, but which is used by many computer audiophiles. By this approach I could listen to all or a portion of a track from one version, and then listen to the other, with only a few seconds delay. To avoid room artifacts and the coloration of my tube/solid state hybrid amp, I used a very revealing and sonically neutral ESS9038 Pro DAC and good-quality planar headphones.
On first listening, the two releases did not sound as dissimilar as I imagined they would. It seemed that both might have been mastered from the same tape, and that any sonic differences were the result of different reproducing recorders and electronics. But repeated plays leads me to conclude that the ORG SACD mastering included an EQ stage, which would more likely have been done in the digital domain than by running the tape output into an outboard analogue equalizer.
In the piano intro to "Bolivar Blues", Monk taps his foot on the studio floor, audible on both SACDs, but on the ORG disc, the tapping is louder and has a bass-ier tone. When the band enters, the difference between the two discs becomes even clearer. On the ORG version, John Ore's bass low-end sounds bloated, the cymbals don't have much air around them, and the piano seems, for lack of a better word and at the risk of being factually inaccurate, digitized. I wouldn't use that descriptor if I knew with certainty that the ORG SACD was mastered directly from an analogue tape.
The MoFi SACD is worth acquiring even if you already have the ORG SACD because Shawn R. Britton transferred the actual source tape — by the label's designation, the Original Master Recording — and the same cannot be determined of the ORG version. The MoFi SACD would be worth the price for Monk's performance of "Bolivar Blues", an astonishing display of technical virtuosity and stylistic inspiration: dense, rhythmically complex opening choruses; aggressive, staccato single-note lines; spacious chordal phrases; a nostalgic, Tatum-esque stride into the head melody at the conclusion.
I wish Columbia's engineers had recorded the piano in the center channel on all the tracks, not only the solo piano performances. As the final chord of "Bolivar Blues" fades to silence and the solo piece "Just a Gigolo" begins, you'll hear a dramatic difference in presentation between the hard-right placement of the piano in the group performances and the front-and-center placement (and perhaps a different mic array) in the unaccompanied solos.
A splendid performance in gorgeous recorded sound; not a note wasted.
Copyright © 2020 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net