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Thelonious Monk is jazz's biggest enigma. Called the "high priest of bebop," the jazz Monk composed and performed was anything but. Technically, Monk's time and tempo were impressive, but he was no dazzling speed wizard like Bud Powell or arpeggio painter like Art Tatum. He didn't compose bebop, but bebop leaders recorded his compositions. What Monk was...was Monk. He was the singular jazz spirit that makes jazz jazz and his songbook the richest in the music.
Monk's compositions, all of them, have entered the vernacular as jazz standards, those songs specifically composed for jazz as opposed to a Tin Pan Alley show tune adapted to jazz. His music is discordant, often difficult, all angles and sharp dissonant edges and rhythms and tempos, and often sounding as if they were composed by a committee on conference call. That is until the listener has invested the time necessary to reach that cognitive threshold beyond which Monk makes perfect sense.
Gratefully, there is plenty of Monk on record, because nothing replaces the authentic article. Yet, having said that, it is a true pleasure to hear a Monk-inspired recital like Ellis Marsalis' An Open Letter to Thelonious. The pianist skillfully straightens out all of the Monkian crags and jetties without eliminating the Monkian genius. Marsalis employs a saxophone quartet like the composer himself; employing son Jason on drums (just check out the New Orleans march on "Jackie-ing").
Marsalis and saxophonist Derek Doughet share a telepathic empathy that infuses the entire group building a synergistically cohesive performance unit. The band fully unites on "Epistrophy" and "Straight, No Chaser," fully integrating their individual talents with the composer's genius. Marsalis' playing is elegant and large. His solo "'Round Midnight" is worth the whole price of the disc. An Open Letter to Thelonious is the most fully integrated focus on Monk on record, taking its place alongside son Wynton's fine Marsalis Plays Monk: Standard Time Volume 4.
Track Listing: Crepescule With Nellie; Jackie-ing; Epistrophy; Monk's Mood; Straight, No Chaser; Light Blue; Teo; Ruby, My Dear; Rhythm-a-ning; Round Midnight; Evidence.
Personnel: Derek Douget: saxophone; Ellis Marsalis: piano; Jason Stewart: bass instrument; Jason Marsalis: drums.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.