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A New Thelonious Monk Album Emerges From the Soundtrack to a Classic French Film

Courtesy of Arnaud Boubet
Private collection

Thelonious Monk’s soundtrack to Les liaisons dangereuses, the provocative French film directed by Roger Vadim, will be released as a double album this spring. Arriving in a year of centennial tribute to Monk, the genius pianist and jazz modernist, it registers as a fresh discovery: while this music was recorded in 1959, it has never been available outside the context of the film, which is out of print.

“It’s a soundtrack, but it’s also a studio album,” said Zev Feldman, who coproduced this new release with two French partners, François Le Xuan and Frederic Thomas. “Because of the quality of the material,” Feldman added, “I even think of it in some ways as a studio album first. This is Monk in his prime, in a really important era, and it’s apparent that he was still evolving.”

Thelonious Monk: Les liaisons dangereuses 1960 will be released as a 2-LP deluxe boxed set on April 22, for Record Store Day, with a 2-CD version scheduled for release on June 16. The set is a joint release of two independent labels: Sam Records (founded by Thomas) and Saga Jazz (run by Le Xuan). Here is the opening track, a brisk jog through Monk’s classic rhythm-changes tune, “Rhythm-a-Ning.”

This recording, like the rest of the album, was made at Nola Penthouse Sound Studios on West 57th Street in New York, on July 27, 1959. Along with Sam Jones on bass and Art Taylor on drums, it features two tenor saxophonists, Charlie Rouse and Barney Wilen. Monk sounds lively and at ease: note the peekaboo feints he plays behind both saxophonists, and the sly rhythmic displacement he slips into his own solo. 

Credit Courtesy of Alain Tercinet / Private Collection
Private Collection
Charlie Rouse and Barney Wilen at Nola Penthouse Sounds Studios, 1959.

Les liaisons dangereuses (“Dangerous Liaisons”) was the first film adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th-century epistolary novel. Vadim, who had cemented his reputation as a provocateur a few years earlier with And God Created Woman, embraced the story, a tale of bourgeois infidelity and seduction. But he decided to set it in modern-day France, with a stylish jazz soundtrack. 

Gérard Philipe and Annette Stroyberg in 'Les Liaisons dangereuses'

At the time of its release, Les liaisons dangereuses received more attention for its risqué tone than for its music: The film faced some outcry in France, and was only shown in New York after a couple of nude scenes had been darkened. Bosley Crowther didn’t even bother to mention the soundtrack in his New York Times review, and Pauline Kael sniffed that Vadim “uses jazz and Negroes and sex all mixed together in a cheap and sensational way that was probably exotic for the French in the ‘50s.”

But the lukewarm reception to the film had little to do with the quality of the music, which documents Monk at a momentous period. Earlier that year he had played a large-ensemble concert at Town Hall, a historic milestone in his career. His working quartet, with Rouse, Jones and Taylor, had also just recorded a fine album with cornetist Thad Jones, 5 by Monk by 5. Just a few weeks before the soundtrack session, Monk appeared with the quartet at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival — playing a set that Dan Morgenstern, writing in Jazz Journal, pronounced “the greatest performance I have heard him give.”

Marcel Romano, a noted French promoter, was the person who introduced Vadim to Monk’s music. Romano was just coming off a magically successful pairing of jazz and film: he’d brought Miles Davis to Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l'echafaud (“Elevator to the Gallows”), another atmospheric study with Jeanne Moreau in a starring role. Romano became the music director for Vadim’s film, and he quickly began courting Monk. (The new release was made from reel-to-reel tapes discovered in Romano’s files several years ago. He died in 2007.)

Credit Courtesy of Arnaud Boubet / Private Collection
Private Collection

The extensive booklet for Les liaisons dangereuses 1960 includes illuminating essays by Brian Priestley, Alain Tercinet and Monk’s biographer, Robin D.G. Kelley, who observes that “Marcel Romano and director Roger Vadim approached Monk at the absolute worst time.” Personal losses, a hectic schedule and a professional setback — the loss of his cabaret card, following an unjust arrest — had left the pianist in a state of emotional unbalance. He was, as Kelley puts it, “overcommitted, tired, and ill — not the best condition for writing new music.”

Elsewhere in the notes, Tercinet describes the arduous process of pursuing and cajoling that led to Monk’s participation in the film: At one point, contract negotiations led to a late-night ping-pong match between Monk and Romano, at the New Jersey home of the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter (pictured in the striped dress below, beside a beer-sipping Thelonious in the studio). 

Credit Courtesy of Arnaud Boubet / Private collection
Private collection

Ultimately no new music was composed for the soundtrack, which mostly resembles a typical Monk set at the time: “Rhythm-a-Ning” appears alongside a sauntering “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are,” a tender “Crepuscule with Nellie” and several delicate iterations of “Pannonica.” One unusual arrangement of “Light Blue,” featuring a brusque, knocking repetition on Taylor’s toms, feels designed with the film in mind. So does the inclusion of a gospel hymn, “We’ll Understand it Better By and By,” which appears during a symbolically loaded moment in the film.

In fact, Monk’s sound appears in much of Les liaisons dangereuses. Notwithstanding some cocktail party scenes — which feature Duke Jordan’s tunes as played by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and later released on the Fontana label — his music forms a running backdrop to the film. The initial credit sequence, depicting pieces on a chessboard, is scored by “Crepuscule with Nellie,” and the opening scene drops you in the middle of “Well, You Needn’t.” Even when the music is used more subtly, it crackles. https://youtu.be/QzuXQsNmMuw?t=1m">In this clip, listen for a snippet of “Rhythm-a-Ning” and, a little later, that tom-tom-punctuated “Light Blue.”

Above all else, Les liaisons dangereuses 1960 reflects the unmistakable cohesion of a working band — even with the addition of Wilen, who had made his American debut at the same 1959 Newport Jazz Festival which Monk had played (and whose other film credits include Ascenseur pour l'echafaud). 

Even without introducing a new composition, the new release lands with a substantial impact. Feldman, who has worked with a growing number of historic jazz releases, notably on the Resonance label, characterizes this body of music in terms befitting a Holy Grail.

“It’s at the top of the heap for me,” he said. “It’s one of the most important projects I’ve worked on. Bar none.”

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.