Pianist Ellis Marsalis' An Open Letter to Thelonious is more than just another homage to the mystique and magic of Thelonious Monk's music.
Marsalis is no stranger to the Monk's music, but it is hardly an area of specialty for the patriarch pianist. As a native of New Orleans, he went against stereotype by not specializing in either trad jazz or R&B. Beginning in the late '50s, he played with mainstream players like Ed Blackwell, Cannonball and Nat Adderley and even Al Hirt, with whom he appeared for a three-year period in the late '60s. During the '70s, Marsalis freelanced and taught.
His recording career began in 1985, but his long stretch with Columbia throughout the '90s was a most productive period that resulted in six albums including a Duke Ellington tribute. The main thrust of Marsalis' jazz presentation was piano trio bebop with the influence of jazzmen like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie most evident in his playing.
Like the standard Monk Quartet, Marsalis uses the configuration of sax and rhythm section. When last seen in live performance, Ellis Marsalis led basically this same group (bassist Bill Huntington preceded Jason Stewart, who is on this recording) at Snug Harbor, the premier jazz club in New Orleans, located just outside of The French Quarter. On that occasion, a few years ago, Marsalis and company blew away the crowd with a 20 minute version of "My Favorite Things," with the same Derek Douget on soprano sax.
The music on An Open Letter to Thelonious is deliberate in its pursuit of a 'Monkian' presentation, but is also representative of the individual members of this combo. The opening "Crepuscule with Nellie" is a respectful version that is very similar to Monk's reflective ballad. However, on the following track, "Jackie-ing," Douget's tenor sax would have made Charlie Rouse proud and the ensemble puts the other pieces together. The combination of Marsalis' insinuating piano and Douget's tenor and soprano work (the saxophonist switches between the two during the full course of the album) capture the Monk essence along with contributions from his son, Jason Marsalis on the drums and Jason Stewart on bass.
The inclusion of "Teo," which was recorded by Monk on a few occasions, qualifies as an obscurity and serves as a vehicle for a fine Douget soprano sax solo as well as one from Marsalis. On the following track, Douget picks up the tenor sax and provides a just-right balladic interpretation of "Ruby, My Dear."
Personnel: Ellis Marsalis: piano; Derek Douget: tenor and soprano sax; Jason Stewart: bass; Jason Marsalis: drums.