Nobody can deny the distinctive signature of Thelonious Monk
's music. Written for simple piano, bass, and drums, it is a remarkable blending of melody, harmony, and rhythm. Now, expand his conception into a quintet setting and the challenge as Monk would say, to "lift the bandstand," presents itself to the musicians and arrangers.
Assigning such a task to six distinguished graduates of The Thelonious Monk Institute Of Jazz finds the music in great hands. Featuring a core quintet of Helen Sung (piano), Alan Hampton (bass), James Alsenders (drums), Wayne Escoffery (tenor saxophone), Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet) and adding vocalist Gretchen Parlato on one track, the group recorded six Monk classic compositions and four original tracks. The music was produced by North Coast Brewing Company, maker of a very nice dark Belgian-style ale called Brother Thelonious, with a painting of Monk on the label, piously dressed as a monk.
The quintet's take on Monk is not to duplicate, but to interpret. They expound on his music without imitation. Sung's piano dances across "Eronel" with her own accent. Don't get me wrong she can speak Monk, as can the others, it's just this quintet prefers not to remake but to articulate. For instance, saxophonist Escoffery's almost mechanical repetition of the opening lines of "Raise Four" free up Alsenders' drums and Hampton's bass to light up the affair. With the pianist sitting out, it is easy to imagine the ghost of Thelonious spinning his dance next to the trio as the track intensifies the euphoric feeling.
The four original tracks by Sung, Escoffrey, Hampton, and Akinmusire harken back to classic bebop with the quintet in full force. While the title track and "Carpe Diem, Vita Brevis" are real burners, both "Heirloom" and "Henya" give pause, to present gentler arrangements.
Certainly Monk's music is the draw here. When they take on "Straight No Chaser," they choose to reinvent the blues with speed and dexterity rarely associated with the composition. Likewise, "Bye Ya" lightly skips-and-hops until the players trade-off compact solos, that beg for more. The highlight of the disc might be the closing track, Monk's "Ugly Beauty" a duo between the trumpet and piano, with the additional of vocals by Parlato. Akinmusire's spoken trumpet part urges on the Sung's piano, whispering kisses on Parlato's seductive vocals. All quite beautiful.
All the proceeds of the sale of this fabulous disc go The Thelonious Monk Institute Of Jazz, as if we need another reason to pour a cold one when listening to Brother Thelonious.
Brother Thelonious; Eronel; Carpe Diem, Vita Brevis; Bye Ya; Raise Four; Straight No Chaser;
Think Of One; Heirloom; Henya; Ugly Beauty/We Still Dream.
Helen Sung: piano; Alan Hampton: bass, voice; James Alsenders: drums; Wayne Escoffery:
tenor saxophone; Ambrose Akinmusire: trumpet; Gretchen Parlato: vocal (10).