Ben Riley's Monk Legacy Septet Birdland, New York City January 27, 2007 Ben Riley: drums; Don Sickler: trumpet, arranger; Bruce Williams: alto saxophone; Wayne Escoffery: tenor saxophone; Jay Brandford: baritone saxophone; Ben Cassorla: guitar; Kiyoshi Kitagawa: bass.
The studio version of this group, Memories Of T, which landed on many Best of 2006 lists, has most of the same players. While I have not heard the record (yet), the energy that was being fed between the players and the audience during this live club set was palpable.
Thelonious Monk's music is one of the wonders of jazz in that it is instantly recognizable, actually quite simple, and oddharmonically and rhythmically idiosyncratic in a way that ensures generations of players still take the time to learn its secrets. Monk's tunes have entered the jazz listener's consciousness, and even if the songs' names cannot be rattled off, within seconds of hearing a main phrase, or even just the comping rhythm, you know it is Monk.
Ben Riley, who played and recorded with Monk in the sixties and Don Sickler, a very experienced player and arranger, have teamed up to present Monk's music without a piano, but with the piano part spread out among the horns.
The effect was as startling as it was natural. What becomes very clear, especially because of the horns, are the dissonances and rhythms of Monk's piano comping, allowing us to hear what it was that Miles Davis hated to play in front of. The band was very tight, the extremely syncopated interjections as sharp as a tack.
Of course, a syncopated background needs something to bounce off of, and this is where Riley, Kitagawa and Cassorla come in. Riley has a simple, clean style and was never ostentatious or one to drop "bombs." You knew he was there, though he didn't draw attention to himself, even when he had a solo. He and Kitagawa were locked solid and provided a platform for the rest of the music. Cassorla had but one solo (the record has Freddie Bryant on guitar), but his comping was just perfect. For the most part, Sickler effectively coordinated the return of the band during solos with hand signals denoting the time until the entrance.
The horn players took turns soloing and filled their comping roles by picking up the signals from Sickler. Everyone was wonderful on their solo turns: Williams stood out on the ballad "Reflections," and Sickler added some tasteful solos of his own. However, it was Escoffery and Brandford who took solo honors. Young, tall and positioned right in the middle of the stage, Escoffery was clearly the hot player, erupting with long streams of notes as the rest of the band looked on and the audience applauded. Brandford, standing next to Escoffery, responded by playing suavely and as smooth as silk, as restrained and understated as Escoffery was emotive. The contrast was very effective, and one could see smiles in the audience from those who could appreciate it. Brandford chuckled after the set when I mentioned having to play next to a fire- breather.
Riley himself got a chance to solo a bit in the form of trading fours with Kitagawa and managed to convey the "serious humor" that pervades everything Monk. It may be a game, but casual or careless players need not apply.
This was a wonderful set that showed how resilient the music of Monk is, retaining its personality no matter how it is played. In this respect, Monk's music has much in common with that of Bach. 'Nuf said.