The Lower East Side's Issue Project Room hosted Elliott Sharp's premier solo acoustic guitar performance project of Thelonious Monk compositions on Dec. 10th. One of few guitar players devoted to helping free the instrument from respective genre-related gimmicks and listener expectations, Sharp slyly presented Monk themes by either taking the liberty to venture from any semblance of the original or by frequently returning to Monk's musical and compositional stamps. Even Sharp's complex and usually inaccessible eccentricities were reeled in by Monk's immediately recognizable tunes long enough to give listeners something to grasp onto, using the themes either as a foundation in "Bemsha Swing", or springboard as in "Epistrophy". The familiar theme of the former was given a bluesy acoustic finger-picked treatment utilizing Sharp's characteristic experimentalist touch. Sharp's unorthodox two-handed techniques through "Epistrophy" transformed the guitar into a percussive instrument, while the extended Monk medley ("Round Midnight"-"Misterioso"-"Nutty"-"Well, You Needn't") featured introductory bent string single-notes resulting in twisted reverberations. The patiently executed opening summoned firefly-like sparks and resonated with mood-inducing overtones from Sharp's strings courtesy of his EBow oscillator gadget. Sharp proves that Monk was one of jazz' greatest experimentalists and that his work continues to spur on unique interpretations, and not only by pianists.
Pianist Cyrus Chestnut's trio of Michael Hawkins (bass) and Neal Smith (drums) played to two week's-worth of sold-out crowds at the new Dizzy's Club to wind down the end of one year and the beginning of the next, the latter of the two featuring legendary alto player Frank Morgan and trumpeter Marcus Printup. On Dec.29th, the trio opened the first set (sans horns) with a blistering display of virtuosity through the standard, "East of the Sun" and a ballad drenched in blues, particularly from the leader who revealed a perhaps not-so obvious influence in Bud Powell, while the trio performed as a single moving unit, doing away with solos, each member helping to push the music forward without drawing too much attention to themselves. Hawkins and Smith showed enough creativity not to have to resort to being mere backdrops to the leader (the billing should certainly have had their names listed but was instead the "Cyrus Chestnut Trio" strangely).
Smith - who recently and simultaneously released his first 2 CDs as leader - particularly shined on "Lighthearted Intelligence", taking an unaccompanied drum solo that showed an energetic drive and colorful pallet of sounds and rhythms, both on brushes and sticks. After the fourth number, a piano solo feature, Morgan and Printup arrived onstage, creating a swinging quintet in the vein of the club's namesake and the many historic trumpet/alto pairings both Dizzy and Morgan have participated. Morgan, a "storyteller" (in Cyrus' words), delivered a timeless tone on alto, taking one's ears back to the roots of bebop and cool. Along with Chestnut, he sang the blues via his horn on "Prelude to a Kiss", an extraordinary and emotional performance. You knew you were witnessing one of the horn's true living greats with but the first note he carefully blew with intentional fragility and breath. The quintet ended the evening with a rendition of the classic "Lover" which began as a Hawkins-Morgan duo before morphing into a piano-less quintet, then a trumpet quartet (sans Morgan), providing for a multi-textural interpretation and performance soaked in spontaneity, true to the art form - not to mention the spirit - of jazz.
~ Laurence Donohue-Greene