Jimmy Owens: The Monk Project (2012)
Jimmy Owens' tribute to the indomitable music of Thelonious Monk is a luxurious road trip that travels on smooth roads once precarious and quite perilous. His septet, an experienced large/small ensemble, glides almost effortlessly through the opulence of this music.
The ease in which these musicians maneuver through the nine Monk compositions, plus Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," is a testament to their talents, but more so to Owens' deft arrangements. Owens pronounces Monk's music approachable, congenial and quite user-friendly.
The often thorny "Epistrophy," a left-handed compliment of a song, is played as a "jang-jang" bluesy railroad swinger, with almost a country and western tilt. Howard Johnson sets aside his tuba for baritone saxophone, gliding a solo above the engine pulse propulsion of drummer Winard Harper and bassist Kenny Davis. Each musicianincluding the always flawless trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and saxophonist Marcus Stricklandsolos before pianist Kenny Barron warms the melody with seeming informality. Gone are the pregnant pauses and hesitant gestures of Monk interpreters like Steve Lacy and Misha Mengelberg.
The music recalls the earlier work of Barron and his Monk tribute band Sphere, which he co-led with bassist Buster Williams and former Monk sidemen, saxophonist Charlie Rouse and drummer Ben Riley. Like Owens, Barron infuses his Monk, not as the crazy sorcerer, but as a bluesy melody maker. "Brilliant Corners" is slowed to a stop/start wriggle, its quirk swapped for the blues, almost to announce a new and listener-friendly translation. The same goes for the difficult "Let's Cool One," that is choreographed in a more introspect way, changing the tempo from 4/4 to 3/4 time.
Owens' tribute to Monk is a craftsman's project, making beautiful what was once foreign and undomesticated. Monk purists may scoff, but fans of gorgeous music will exalt.
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.