The seven-song Unique Thelonious Monk (1956) platter was the pianist's second during his remarkable five-year tenure on Riverside. His debut for the label was the aptly titled Plays Duke Ellington (1955) and once again, on this disc, Monk's song selection did not feature any original compositions. Rather, the well-chosen standards included exemplify and help further establish the pianist and bandleader within the context of familiar melodies at the head of a trio -- consisting of Oscar Pettiford (bass) and Art Blakey (drums). Regarding the personnel, while Pettiford had also accompanied Monk on the Ellington sides, Blakey replaces Kenny Clarke. The pairing of Monk and Blakey cannot be overstated. Immediately, evidence of their uncanny instrumental interaction is the rhythmic focal point of "Liza, All the Clouds'll Roll Away" as the two play musical cat-and-mouse. They cajole and wheedle atop Pettiford's undulating undercurrent as it sonically corals their skilled syncopation and otherwise inspired mile-a-minute interjections. This is starkly contrast to the haunting, lyrical piano solo on "Memories of You." Monk infuses the piece with such profound ingenuity and integrity that his re-evaluation and innovative arrangement are singularly and undeniably his own. Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose" reels with a frolicking and ever-so-slightly inebriated gate. It is likewise highlighted by Monk's dreamlike single-note runs up and down the keyboard and the stride piano-style chord progressions that preserves a fluidity within the tune. The advanced score maintains a guise of almost goofy abandon within Monk's highly logical and well-sculpted musical structure. The juxtaposition of "Darn That Dream" is another study in the vacillating moods of The Unique Thelonious Monk. The sophisticated performance is understated, yet remains loose and limber and perfectly in keeping with the album's leitmotif of exploring Monk's skills as an arranger and musician. As if he were testing his audience, the manic and atonal opening to "Tea for Two" -- briefly featuring Pettiford on bowed upright bass -- rollicks with a youthful visage, rather than being a simple reworking of this well-established classic. This LP concludes with one of Monk's most memorable pieces on the fun and freewheeling "Just You, Just Me." The trio struts and glides as Monk's intricate fingering simultaneously displays his physical dexterity as well as his ability to play so deftly in the moment. Both attributes would resurface ten-fold once Monk began to animate his own compositions on the genre-defining Brilliant Corners (1956).
AllMusic Review by Lindsay Planer