MONK'estra at SFJAZZ Center
San Francisco, CA
August 22, 2013
The music of the legendary Thelonious Monk (October 10, 1917-February 17, 1982) has rarely been heard in a big band setting. The second most-recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington, Monk's music is nothing if not popular. While Ellington composed over a thousand songs, Monk penned only around seventy or so. His Big Band and Quartet in Concert, (Columbia, 1963), recorded at New York's Lincoln Center on December 30, 1963, remains a classic, but big band performances of his repertoire have remained scarce in the decades past.
And yet, Monk continues to inspire each generation of jazz musicians anew. Consider the case of John Beasley. Based in Los Angeles, the pianist had already dipped his foot in the Monk repertoire on Thelonious (K2B2, 1988), a date from the short-lived group of the same name, led by bassist/cellist Buell Neidlinger. 10/10: Tribute to Thelonious Monk (MMP, 1994), a duet with guitarist Steve Cardenas, followed. Now, he has come up with a new project: MONK'estra, a 16-member orchestra dedicated to the music of Monk. Beasley explains that Monk is different from other jazz composers because of his perpetually swinging harmonies and the pliability of the pianist's compositions. "The big band music of Thad Jones-Mel Lewis and Quincy Jones led me into jazz, and I had long dreamed of having my own big band. Experimenting with an arrangement of 'Epistrophy' led me to discover that my sound would work in a big band setting. MONK'estra generated from this."
One thing led to another when a YouTube video of the ensemble (there are no recordings as of yet), viewed by SFJAZZ Center founder Randall Kline, led to this San Francisco premiere on a Thursday evening. The entire 16-member band took the stage in the new hall (it opened in 2013) and launched intowhat else but"Epistrophy," a classic Monk composition.
Beasleywho also plays acoustic piano (both solo and in tandem with the orchestra) and melodica during gigstook to the stage behind a USB keyboard tethered to a Macbook which utilizes Main Stage, Omniospere and Native Instruments software programs. The front battery of horns included players versed in alto, soprano, baritone and tenor saxophones, as well as flute, clarinet and bass clarinets; the second line had trumpeters and the third trombonists, including a bass trombone. All donned shades of gray and black, and a portrait of Monk was secured to the front of each music stand. Each tune saw soloists either stepping forward to the front of the stage or stand up and expound on their instrument. Stepping forward to the front, Colombian native, ethnomusicologist and saxophonist Justo Almario took the evening's first solo. Beasley got up from the piano to dance in time with the music. A blistering trumpet solo by Gabriel Johnson followed. Beasley, all the while, conductedrepeatedly clapping his hands to the beat.
For "Little Rootie Tootie," trombonist Francisco Torres (of the Poncho Sanchez band), soloed, while Tom Luer and Jeff Driskill went to town on saxophones. Beasley soloed on the venerable Monk ballad "Ask Me Now," and played a cadenza towards the end of the rarely performed "Skippy," the next and final number of the set. The complex tune featured saw a drum solo by Garry Novak, a soprano saxophone solo by Bob Sheppard and trumpet solos by Brian Swartz and Bijon Watson. Beasley conducted with both hands, while Williams played electric bass. After a standing ovation, it was time to mingle.
As the lights flashed at the end of the break, the near sellout crowd took its seats and the band reconvened, launching into "I Remember Clifford." The standard, which doubles as a tribute to the late trumpet player Clifford Brown, was composed by saxophonist Benny Golson. Driskill stepped forward to solo on tenor as Williams switched to electric bass for the number.
Monk, Beasley noted onstage, would bring his whole family with him to San Francisco, where he spent a portion of his time, especially at the famous (but long defunct) jazz club, The Blackhawk. Beasley's ensemble came up with a version of "San Francisco Holiday," just for this occasion. Justo held forth with a lyrical flute solo, while trombonist Wendell Kelly expertly employed his plunger.
"Oska T," Monk's tribute to Oscar Treadwell (a legendary radio personality and jazz historian from Cincinnati) followed, accompanied by an intricate acoustic bass solo by Williams. Johnson held forth on trumpet ,while Ryan Dragon soloed on trombone.
Prefaced by a rapid fire piano solo, "I Mean You" afforded the white-haired Tommy Peterson, a Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin alumnus, room to solo on baritone sax, followed by Swartz on trumpet. Novak took the limelight with his work on the drums.
"Rhythm A Ning," the last of the evening's extended compositions, gave ample space for Bijon Watson to solo on trumpet, Sheppard on saxophone and Jamie Horvaka trumpet. Novak gave Williams a high five as Beasley left the stage, the door swinging shut behind him.
After another standing ovation, Beasley returned to the stage. After banter, which included telling the audience that "you have the water and we have the Lakers," Beasley sat down at the piano for a solo introducing "Peace," an evocative composition by the recently deceased Cedar Walton. Beasley played melodica, the band pumped, the tune ended. "Have a peaceful week. Have peace in your heart. We love you," Beasley advised. Following raucous applause and yet another standing ovation, the MONK'estra left the stage.