Sphere: A Collective Approach to Monk
Iridium Jazz Club
Sphere’s recent gig at New York’s Iridium Jazz Club had been publicized, as their forays often are, as a tribute to the music of Thelonious Monk. And while the billboard struck even cursory fans as a must-see, few went in expecting the revelatory experience they eventually walked away with.
Formed in 1979 by drummer Ben Riley and tenor man Charlie Rouse, Sphere was originally intended as a repertory group celebrating the songbook of modern jazz’s leading composer. Adding the formidable talents of Kenny Barron on piano and Buster Williams on bass, Riley and Rouse soon had themselves a barnstorming outfit- capable of turning the most elaborate of Monk tunes into lyrical flight. Before long, their repertoire was expanded to include a healthy cache of originals and standards, as well as a broader slice from the Monk book.
Then in 1988, after a series of well received tours and recordings, the group experienced a disbanding blow with the untimely death of Rouse. It wasn’t until ten years later, when a hard-blowing Gary Bartz was enlisted to fill the reed spot, that Sphere resumed its quasi-venerative course.
Today as much as ever, Sphere continues to spellbind its audiences with the ease and fluidity with which they carve through Monk’s challenging material. In fact, the more one sees the group in action, the more lucid the music seems to become. It’s amazing really, especially when one considers that the compositions they perform are the same ones that have consistently handcuffed even the most adept of musicians.
So what, then, is Sphere’s secret?
Practice is undoubtedly part of it. After years of playing the songbook, one would hope that their capable hands would have gotten the hang of it. But more than just practice, Sphere’s ability to climb into Monk’s music has everything to do with to two simple points: Compatibility and Collectivity.
The fact that these men have been playing together for over 2 decades explains their compatibility. Aside from Sphere, each member has either accompanied or led the others in a variety of musical settings. Thanks to this, mutual awareness, comfort, and communication have been developed- all factors that reinforce their on stage chemistry. Short stares, head bobs, shoulders shrugs, hip sways, winks, smiles and intuition (of course) are among the laundry list of gestures and indicators they use to hit marks and traverse the rolling musical passes of their material.
Yet even more than compatibility, it’s the way they collectivize their distinctive styles that most significantly distinguishes Sphere’s approach. As their sets unfold, it becomes clear that not only does each individual ‘fit in’ in terms of the ensemble, but in a more profound sense as well. Each member, in his own unique way, personifies an element of Monk’s musical personality. Together, these elements gel to form a whole Monk sound, and effectively drive deep into the heart of his compositions. Their interpretations are, in every sense of the words, assaults ‘by committee.’
Buster Williams, a model of unflinching confidence and fluidity, is Sphere’s resident ‘minister of rhythm.’ Perched atop the bandstand like a biding bird of prey, his bass lines swoop in and out of the melodies with impeccable taste and patience. In the Monk equation, Williams offers a willingness to bend notes and rhythms, as well as an appreciation of dissonance that reminisces the late pianist. With Williams, as with Monk, it is ‘cool’ emotion that prevails: streaming beads of sweat, eyes glazed over, foot fiercely tapping, strings bending, neck buckling, elbows swaying and eventually, when the time comes to re-enter the fray, the prodigious hipster Williams allows himself a minor departure to smile.
Across the stage, returning Buster’s grin, is the playful Ben Riley. Unlike Williams, who embodies the focus and cool of Monk, Riley prefers to arm himself with a completely different part of the legendary pianist: youthful waywardness. He hops, snaps, snickers and smiles- sporting his signature black leather pilot’s gloves, which appropriately point to his role as the group’s harmonic navigator. Committed to the rhythm but leaps from rigid, Riley’s fills and accents evoke Monk’s playful, percussive style of piano playing- and always with a curl in his lip or a wink in the eye.
Beyond this playfulness and intensity, Monk’s music is also striking in its maturity. That he composed such classics as ‘Round Midnight and Epistrophy in his twenties has long been a point of marvel among fans and critics alike. In Sphere, the embodiment to this side of Monk is unquestionably Kenny Barron. Sitting at his bench- a lowered throne of sorts- the skillful pianist calls out tunes and directs traffic, assigns solos and extends jams- never with the slightest effort, and always with utmost consideration. Though Sphere is unquestionably a collective, Barron’s position as musical director is always in evidence.
Beside Barron, at center stage, measuring in at a formidable six feet four, is the hornman Bartz. Gentle in disposition, but ferocious in sound, Gary Bartz rounds out the quartet like few others could. And whereas his mates personify the structure and firmament of Monk’s music, Bartz’s connection is somewhat more abstract. His notes hopping and floating like a sing-a-long lyric ball, the saxophonist is a testament to the virility and conviction so central to the music Monk created. Similar the late pianist, Bartz pours out his lines like soul juice. Every breath is taken to its absolute end, and startling shifts in flow are favored over standard cadence. Like Monk, both strengths and weaknesses are always on display, making his expressions both relatable and poignant.
In the final analysis, what distinguishes Sphere’s music from that of other repertory bands are their efforts to forge a collective sound. Similar to the Modern Jazz Quartet and certain Bill Evans trios, each member of Sphere is at once a true original as well as an singular element contributing to the whole. The result is an evocative, full sounding outfit- willing and capable of tackling the most challenging areas of the jazz artform. And whereas countless groups continue to play Thelonious Monk’s music, very few are able to extract the true spirit of the material.
With Sphere, the spirit’s never in question.