Jimmy Owens: The Monk Project (2011)
Albums built on the idea of reworking the music of Thelonious Monk have become so commonplace as to risk being seen as old hat before the shrink wrap even comes off the CD, but the success or failure of these projects doesn't rest with the actual recasting of the legendary pianist's work. The manner by which an artist recasts Monk is of greater importance than the act itself, and everybody has their own take on the man and his music.
Pianist Jason Moran took the famed 1959 Town Hall Concert to new places in live performance, guitarists Bobby Broom and Peter Bernstein each traded in on the fact that their instrument isn't an easy fit for Monk's work, organist Greg Lewis took an occasionally aggressive and outré approach on his nod to Monk, and pianist Ellis Marsalis went with a more straightforward reading of the iconic composer's work, and that's just a short list of some who have tread on this ground in the past few years. Now, at the dawn of 2012, trumpeter Jimmy Owens enters the world of Monk, relying on arrangements and personalities to distinguish his album from the rest.
The cast of characters that inhabit these pieces could hardly be better, with giants like trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, pianist Kenny Barron, and tuba terror Howard Johnson in the mix, and the arrangements are clean and tight as can be. The only downside is that some of the idiosyncrasies that make Monk's music so endearing seem to have been buffed out of these arrangements. Percussive piano, clustered sounds, and quirky ideals don't fit into the formula that Owens works with, but this remains a strong album nonetheless.
Each piece offers riches in the form of solos and/or arranging twists, and the thrills keep coming. A Latin-ized "Well You Needn't" features Owens and Barron, both in fine form, while a waltzing "Let's Cool One" is notable for Marcus Strickland's tenor work, and Owens' gorgeous flugelhorn playing brings a heretofore unknown tenderness and beauty to "Reflections." Gordon's plunger mute-enhanced solo on a woozy-as-can-be "Blue Monk" is wonderfully raunchy and exhilarating, and all three brass men get their moment in the sun during a take on "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," which Monk co-opted long ago.
Owens doesn't take on Monk's legacy by aping the man's style, just as Monk didn't waste his time trying to use Ellingtonian mannerisms on Plays Duke Ellington (Riverside, 1955), but the trumpeter projects his own voice through Monk's work and, in the process, establishes his own foothold in the world of worthy Thelonious Monk tribute albums.
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.