T.S. Monk's new album Higher Ground serves up a decidedly challenging musical concoction. With this release, Monk has not only solidified a highly personal sound, he has done something rare and infinitely appealing: he has created idiosyncratic, confounding music.
Released in conjunction with the founding of Thelonious Records, and coinciding with the long awaited opening of the Thelonious Monk Archives, Higher Ground consists of nine tracks presented by the younger T.S. Monk's septet, a standing group of adroit players and skilled composers. Monk's self-stated policy of fostering his fellow bandmates writing provides one explanation for the variety of material on Higher Ground. However, this does not fully explain the distinctive personality of the album, for its peculiar tenor stems from more than just the diversity of compositions.
Each track varies in disposition throughout its development, rarely evoking a single, easily identifiable spirit. Just when you think the cheerful, almost ironically fastidious opening number, 'Haristocracy,' has settled into a popping big-band like arrangement of bouncing ensemble work, the trumpet solo turns histrionic and jagged, almost as if pointing out the glib quality of the previous material. The following track, 'Girl Watchin',' possess an equally orchestrated feel, as well as a similarly self-conscious tone that turns the frustratingly polished, late-night talk show melody into a witty parody of itself. Or take the next piece, 'Mosaic,' which begins with rapid-fire bop-esque effusions, then adds a wild scat vocal full of growling, aggressive eructions found more often on Busta Rhymes' apocalyptic albums than within the world of jazzlet alone a Gillespie tinged bop piece. And again, the composition reveals careful, tight orchestration, as does most of the recording.
Certainly not oriented toward free jazz, Monk's voicing and instrumentation have more in common with the big-band and small ensemble groups of Lunceford, Ellington, and Gillespie. This return to an earlier, swinging sound is one of the elements which lends the album an odd feel. This is not the kind of introspective, often melancholic, straining music of the spiritual adventurer typically hailed as 'high art.' It isn't straight pop either. Nor is it a retro-swing album. What Monk achieves, however, by turning to the swing, big-band era orchestration style is to re-infuse his music with a foot-tapping, smile-widening humor and optimism often deemed an antediluvian part of jazz's na've origins.
Unfortunately, this anachronistic tendency tinges some of Higher Ground's more prosaic songs with a disruptively dated feel, despite the clear connections to fusion, R&B, and soul that Monk's always precise and solid percussion provides the entire album. But again, there are mitigating, and complicating elements within each piece which leave one guessing. The pedestrian 'Ladera Heights,' for example, drips with so much soul one expects Barry White's voice to suddenly break in with an earnest 'I love you, baby' lyric... but at the same time, something in the droll delivery of the solos and the roguish piano accompaniment leaves one suspicious as to a possible burlesque.
Or take the bluesy 'Craw-daddy,' which lays down such a pinpoint-perfect swing groove, exhibiting such note-perfect blues piano affectations, trumpet growls, trombone grinds, and hip swaying ensemble toots that it comes off like the score to a Broadway New Orleans strip club sequence. And it's frustratingly difficult to discern whether it's supposed to be for the outrageous Busby Berklee version or the Andrew Loyd Weber crowd pleaser.
Then there are the seemingly 'straight' tracks, like the boppish ''Philly Twist'; the gentle, asymmetrical piano vehicle 'Missing Line'; and the rhythmically kicking, vocally scintillating 'Cubano Chant,' which leave you wondering if these are the album's standout pieces, or if you have missed the joke, the twist, the ironic charge.
Either way, there is something peculiar happening on T.S. Monk's Higher Ground that should intrigue listeners, make critics nervous, and provide a lot of driving, uplifting joy.