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'Palo Alto' by Thelonious Monk. A jazz titan goes to high school with his quartet in fine, freewheeling form / The Wall Street Journal.

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‘In the fall of 1968, a sixteen-year-old Jewish kid named Danny Scher had a dream. He wanted to bring the renowned Thelonious Monk and his quartet to play a benefit concert at his high school in Palo Alto, California."

So begins a liner note by Robin D.G. Kelley, Monk's definitive biographer, for "Palo Alto," a previously unreleased recording of that concert, out now. (The music is available on CD and vinyl through the Impulse! label, and digitally through Legacy Recordings.)

Since Monk's death in 1982, the influence of his compact yet essential body of compositions has grown with each passing decade; once considered radical, they are now elemental to modern jazz. Even so, Monk's piano playing-his jarring rhythmic displacements, clotted chords, flat-fingered runs and spiky dissonances on "Well, You Needn't" here, for instance-still sounds distinct. "Palo Alto" enlightens as it delights, opening a window into how Monk challenged his bands and himself, endlessly refreshing his unusual yet accessible compositions. Plus, it comes with a good story.

Mr. Scher, who would go on to a career as a promoter with rock impresario Bill Graham, was, in 1968, the red-headed kid who spun jazz records during lunchtime at "Paly," as his school was known. Having already presented pianist Vince Guaraldi, vocalist Jon Hendricks and vibraphonist Cal Tjader in fundraisers for the campus International Club, he hired Monk's quartet for $500. His motivation was pure: Along with Duke Ellington, who he'd later bring to the school, Monk was his idol. He sold concert-program ads along his paper route in predominantly white, upscale Palo Alto. He put up posters in mostly Black, less affluent East Palo Alto, where a campaign was afoot to rename the municipality Nairobi, after the capital of Kenya. He was no doubt aware of a larger context for such cross-promotion: the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and the turmoil surrounding race.

What Mr. Scher likely didn't know is that Monk, who four years earlier had appeared on the cover of Time magazine, was deeply in debt (the pianist probably welcomed a chance to earn extra money in the middle of his two-week engagement at San Francisco's Jazz Workshop). Critics had begun turning on the pianist, acknowledging his importance yet calling his quartet "predictable" because he mostly stuck to his existing compositions while other marquee jazz stars, such as Miles Davis, restlessly transformed their music.

After the concert, Mr. Scher placed his reel-to-reel recording in a box, where it remained for decades. If not for a school janitor who agreed to tune the piano if he could record the show, this release wouldn't exist. It's not a perfect document-Monk's piano bench creaks through some passages-but the music sounds clear and affecting nonetheless.

Monk's quartet here-with tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, his sideman for a decade by then, along with bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley, who joined Monk in 1964-was his most cohesive band, then at the height of its powers. Perhaps owing to the informal nature of the gig, the group seems particularly uninhibited. The music sounds ebullient.

Monk almost never began a set with a ballad, but he opens here with one of his own: "Ruby, My Dear," played at a medium tempo and punctuated by a succinct and deeply satisfying piano solo. Compared to "Live at the It Club"-a landmark album documenting this group four years earlier on a Los Angeles bandstand-the extended versions here of Monk's "Well, You Needn't" and "Blue Monk" sound looser, more creative. On "Well, You Needn't," Monk builds propulsion and drama with each chord, and Gales plays a long and playful bowed section. On "Blue Monk," the band seems less beholden to blues syntax than to organic call-and-response phrasing. "Epistrophy," which Monk co-wrote with drummer Kenny Clarke, exemplifies both the percussive nature of his pianism and his band's masterly sense of time.

The most gripping moments of this recording find Monk alone at the piano, playing songs he didn't write. On the Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields classic "Don't Blame Me," he grounds his left hand in stride-piano's bounce, rains down elegant arpeggios with his right and, in between, wrings maximum emotion from single notes. His closer, a solo rendition of "I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams," a 1928 song made famous by Rudy Vallee, lasts just one deeply affecting minute. As its final crashing chord evaporates into overtones the auditorium erupts in applause, to which Monk says, "We have to hurry back and get to work, you dig?"

And so he did. East Palo Alto didn't change its name. The identity of that Palo Alto janitor remains a mystery. Yet thanks to him and to this performance before an unlikely interracial audience in a high school auditorium, we have 47 minutes of rare pleasure, and a corrective to Monk's long-ago detractors. He never grew predictable. He just dug deeper into these tunes to innovate.