Jimmy Owens: The Monk Project (2011)
Thelonious Monk is not suffering from inattention in 2011; it seems, in fact, that he's having a great year, for someone who died in 1982. His singularly quirky tunes have become the staples of hundreds of set lists, and it's hard to swing a dead cat in a record store without hitting dozens of new releases that include at least one Monk song. And why not? Monk's compositions are among the most original, identifiable and substantial music in the jazz canon; the guy was an eccentric genius but, as they say, it's the genius that counts.
Following on the heels of Eric Reed's The Dancing Monk (Savant, 2011), and Kim Pensyl & Phil DeGreg's Melodious Monk (Summit, 2011), Jimmy Owens takes his turn with The Monk Project, an album with the immediate benefit of an A-list lineup to take the veteran trumpeter/flugelhornist's arrangements through their paces. The unusual inclusion of Howard Johnson's tuba on several tracks adds a bit of strategically placed bottom heft. "Unusual" is generally a good thing where Monk's compositions are concerned, and the unorthodox horn is complimentary.
Owens has a deep warm sound on his horns, and never sounds like he's in a hurrya quality also reflected in the relatively moderate pace of the arrangements. "Brilliant Corners" varies between moderato for the distinctive theme, to downright laconic for the deepest blue improvisational passages.
Contributions by the reedstenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland, and tubaist Johnson, also on baritoneare exemplary, supporting the arrangements with supple unison, but showing real chops when authorized to speak out. Wycliffe Gordon makes his trombone growl and moan during his standout romp through "Epistrophy," while pianist Kenny Barron wisely refrains from trying to directly ape Monk's peculiar fingering style, relying instead on his innate sophistication and the strength of the compositions.
The arrangements, layered with harmonies and polyrhythms, are finely crafted, but they have a questionable relationship with Monk's original compositions. On Monk's signature "Epistrophy," Owens expands its basic structure by adding two notes to the original six note left-hand intro, and those extra notes are the rub. In the context of his time, Monk's music was revolutionary, in part, because of its dissonance. Comparing Monk's compositions back-to-back with his contemporaries and they are absolutely shocking for their angularity. By adding those two extra notes to the bass line, Owens transforms the passage from a powerfully discordant statement to little more than a mere bass line. It rounds the edges, downplaying the seditious element central to Monk's music.
None of which is to say that The Monk Project is a bad record. It is very well-crafted and played, but it may simply stray too far from its source. It's worth hearing, but it's also worthwhile to listen to Monk's own recordings for comparison, where the difference in affect is not subtle. The Monk Project is a strong effort, but Owens may have over-reached Monk in his revising a classic set of compositions.
Track Listing: Bright Mississippi; Well You Needn't; Blue Monk; Stuffy Turkey; Pannonica; Let's Cool One; It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing); Brilliant Corners; Reflections; Epistrophy.
Personnel: Jimmy Owens: trumpet, flugelhorn; Wycliffe Gordon: trombone; Marcus Strickland: tenor saxophone; Howard Johnson: tuba, baritone saxophone; Kenny Barron: piano: Kenny Davis: bass; Winard Harper: drums.