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MONK'estra at SFJAZZ Center

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MONK'estra
SFJAZZ Center
San Francisco, CA
August 22, 2013

The music of the legendary Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
(October 10, 1917-February 17, 1982) has rarely been heard in a big band setting. The second most-recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
, Monk's music is nothing if not popular. While Ellington composed over a thousand songs, Monk penned only around seventy or so. His Big Band and Quartet in Concert, (Columbia, 1963), recorded at New York's Lincoln Center on December 30, 1963, remains a classic, but big band performances of his repertoire have remained scarce in the decades past.

And yet, Monk continues to inspire each generation of jazz musicians anew. Consider the case of John Beasley
John Beasley
John Beasley

piano
. Based in Los Angeles, the pianist had already dipped his foot in the Monk repertoire on Thelonious (K2B2, 1988), a date from the short-lived group of the same name, led by bassist/cellist Buell Neidlinger. 10/10: Tribute to Thelonious Monk (MMP, 1994), a duet with guitarist Steve Cardenas, followed. Now, he has come up with a new project: MONK'estra, a 16-member orchestra dedicated to the music of Monk. Beasley explains that Monk is different from other jazz composers because of his perpetually swinging harmonies and the pliability of the pianist's compositions. "The big band music of Thad Jones
Thad Jones
Thad Jones
1923 - 1986
trumpet
-Mel Lewis
Mel Lewis
Mel Lewis
1929 - 1990
drums
and Quincy Jones
Quincy Jones
Quincy Jones
b.1933
producer
led me into jazz, and I had long dreamed of having my own big band. Experimenting with an arrangement of 'Epistrophy' led me to discover that my sound would work in a big band setting. MONK'estra generated from this."

One thing led to another when a YouTube video of the ensemble (there are no recordings as of yet), viewed by SFJAZZ Center founder Randall Kline, led to this San Francisco premiere on a Thursday evening. The entire 16-member band took the stage in the new hall (it opened in 2013) and launched into—what else but—"Epistrophy," a classic Monk composition.

Beasley—who also plays acoustic piano (both solo and in tandem with the orchestra) and melodica during gigs—took to the stage behind a USB keyboard tethered to a Macbook which utilizes Main Stage, Omniospere and Native Instruments software programs. The front battery of horns included players versed in alto, soprano, baritone and tenor saxophones, as well as flute, clarinet and bass clarinets; the second line had trumpeters and the third trombonists, including a bass trombone. All donned shades of gray and black, and a portrait of Monk was secured to the front of each music stand. Each tune saw soloists either stepping forward to the front of the stage or stand up and expound on their instrument. Stepping forward to the front, Colombian native, ethnomusicologist and saxophonist Justo Almario
Justo Almario
Justo Almario

saxophone
took the evening's first solo. Beasley got up from the piano to dance in time with the music. A blistering trumpet solo by Gabriel Johnson
Gabriel Johnson
Gabriel Johnson

trumpet
followed. Beasley, all the while, conducted—repeatedly clapping his hands to the beat.

For "Little Rootie Tootie," trombonist Francisco Torres (of the Poncho Sanchez
Poncho Sanchez
Poncho Sanchez
b.1951
congas
band), soloed, while Tom Luer and Jeff Driskill went to town on saxophones. Beasley soloed on the venerable Monk ballad "Ask Me Now," and played a cadenza towards the end of the rarely performed "Skippy," the next and final number of the set. The complex tune featured saw a drum solo by Garry Novak, a soprano saxophone solo by Bob Sheppard and trumpet solos by Brian Swartz
Brian Swartz
Brian Swartz
b.1967
trumpet
and Bijon Watson. Beasley conducted with both hands, while Williams played electric bass. After a standing ovation, it was time to mingle.

As the lights flashed at the end of the break, the near sellout crowd took its seats and the band reconvened, launching into "I Remember Clifford." The standard, which doubles as a tribute to the late trumpet player Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
1930 - 1956
trumpet
, was composed by saxophonist Benny Golson
Benny Golson
Benny Golson
b.1929
sax, tenor
. Driskill stepped forward to solo on tenor as Williams switched to electric bass for the number.

Monk, Beasley noted onstage, would bring his whole family with him to San Francisco, where he spent a portion of his time, especially at the famous (but long defunct) jazz club, The Blackhawk. Beasley's ensemble came up with a version of "San Francisco Holiday," just for this occasion. Justo held forth with a lyrical flute solo, while trombonist Wendell Kelly expertly employed his plunger.

"Oska T," Monk's tribute to Oscar Treadwell (a legendary radio personality and jazz historian from Cincinnati) followed, accompanied by an intricate acoustic bass solo by Williams. Johnson held forth on trumpet ,while Ryan Dragon soloed on trombone.

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