This album, recorded on the Riverside label in 1956, was deemed by Nat Hentoff, then Editor of DownBeat magazine, “Riverside’s most important modern jazz LP to date.” Music critic Robert Christgau declared that — along with Monk’s 1959 live album Misterioso — “Brilliant Corners represents Monk's artistic peak.” And topping them all, Lindsay Planer wrote in the online music guide AllMusic that the album "may well be considered the alpha and omega of post-World War II American jazz. No serious jazz collection should be without it."
Brilliant Corners was a studio recording, produced in three separate sessions with two different quintets under sometimes difficult circumstances. All compositions were by Monk, except for the standard “I Surrender, Dear.” And Monk shares credit with Denzil Best for “Bemsha Swing.” Here are the personnel configurations, broken down by track.
1. Brilliant Corners: Monk, piano; Ernie Henry, alto sax; Sonny Rollins, tenor sax; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Max Roach, drums
2. Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are: Monk, Henry, Rollins, Pettiford, Roach
3. Pannonica: Monk, piano and celeste; Henry (ensemble only), Rollins, Pettiford, Roach
4. I Surrender, Dear (Harry Barns, comp.): Monk, solo piano
5. Bemsha Swing: Monk, Clark Terry, trumpet; Rollins, Paul Chambers, bass; Roach, drums and tympani.
The first of the three sessions, on October 9, 1956, was devoted to recording two tracks: “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are” (the title a phonetic spelling of Monk’s exaggerated pronunciation of “Blue Bolivar Blues,” a reference to New York’s Bolivar Hotel, where resided Monk’s longtime patron the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter) and “Pannonica” (Monk’s paean to the Baroness).
The second session, on October 15, was an arduous one, to say the least. The only item on the day’s agenda was the recording of the title track, “Brilliant Corners,” a highly complex composition that followed no standard form: an 8-bar A section followed by a 7-bar B section, employing a double-time theme in each second chorus as well as complex rhythm accents. Considered one of Monk’s most difficult compositions, it took its toll on the musicians in the studio that October day. The alto saxophonist Ernie Henry was so rattled that he was said nearly to have had a nervous breakdown. He and the bassist Oscar Pettiford both had words with Monk, who attempted to make things easier on Henry by laying out behind his solo. On one take, the engineer could detect no sound from the bass and thought there might be a problem with the bass microphone. No, Pettiford just wasn’t playing. He was pretending to play — pantomiming! Not a good day. After 25 takes, there was not a single one that was usable. The producer Orrin Keepnews ultimately resorted to drawing from multiple takes to edit down a coherent single one, and that’s what’s on the album.
For the third and final session, on December 7, both Ernie Henry and Oscar Pettiford were out, replaced by Clark Terry, playing trumpet, and bassist Paul Chambers. The session produced “Bemsha Swing” and Monk’s solo performance of “I Surrender, Dear.”
Thelonious Monk is known today of course as a jazz icon, a remarkable pianist and composer, one of the pioneers of bebop, and an enigmatic genius. Brilliant Corners, his third recording for the Riverside label, afforded Monk the opportunity to assemble an all-star lineup of the day’s jazz artists, to showcase some of his most memorable compositions, and brought him to the fore in modern jazz.
Among the highlights of the album is Sonny Rollins’s solo on the title track. As challenging a composition as “Brilliant Corners” was, and even in the context of the pieced-together final track we hear on the recording, Rollins reveals great inventiveness as he showcases his very personal interpretation of Monk’s music. Ernie Henry, the alto saxophonist and least-known of the participants, demonstrates on “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are” why he deserves to be on the session, improvising exceptionally on this down-home blues that so reflects Monk’s own musical roots.
It could be argued that the success of Brilliant Corners foreshadowed a moment, eight years later, when Thelonious Monk would attract national attention, as he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine—one of very few jazz musicians so honored.
In any case, to repeat the words of AllMusic’s Lindsay Planer about the album: “No serious jazz collection should be without it."