Sphere: A Collective Approach to Monk
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.