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T.S. Monk Sextet at Revolution Hall

Tom Borden and Eric Gibbons By

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T.S. Monk Sextet
Revolution Hall
PDX Jazz 2017
Portland, OR
February 25, 2017

The centerpiece of the 2017 PDX Jazz festival was a posthumous honor bestowed upon the late great Thelonious Monk. Inarguably a pillar in the pantheon of jazz, Monk's music was delivered at this year's festival from as close to the source as one among the living can get: via his son T.S. Monk.

Anyone born to such an immense jazz pedigree would certainly have large shoes to fill. The beauty of T.S. Monk's steps are that they changed the footprint. Growing up under the piano bench of Thelonious Monk— with Art Blakey, Oscar Pettiford and many others in the room—would seem to illuminate a certain destiny. It's true, T.S. Monk had jazz in his blood. He was taught the drums by Max Roach on a kit from Art Blakey. He lived it by lineage.

But T.S. Monk's ship steered a wandering course with ports of call in pop, R&B, "big booty girls," and "dark times." If you track down Monk's catalog, you will find a mixed bag. However, like the Prodigal Son, he returned in earnest to jazz in the early 1990s. As he told us from the stage, it was Johnny Griffin that reintroduced T.S. Monk to the music. He was given a spot, and a place to develop, in Johnny's band. Monk came to the PDX Jazz stage as a knight who has earned his tap of the sword.

T.S. Monk's sextet at Revolution Hall was comprised of world-class musicians that each brought a jazz fluency amplified time and again by the generosity of their performance. Monk's stories threatened to overshadow the music at times but the audience would not have complained. "It's not rocket science. This is about having fun," he proclaimed before sitting down to the drum kit and counting out the tempo for his father's tune "Evidence."

What followed was overwhelming evidence of the capacity for expansion that Thelonious the elder allowed for in his music, and his son's ability to respectfully make it his own. True to jazz ideals, T.S. Monk played HIS music. His band was able to slip the surly bonds of his father's greatness and execute their own thang.

The band finessed their way through "One by One," a Wayne Shorter composition that featured a great story about and blistering solo by trumpeter Freddie Hendrix. A T.S. Monk original, "Sierra," was written for his daughter, Thelonious Monk's granddaughter. It was spry and bouncy in a Little Rootie Tootie way.

The musical paramount was the sextet's take on Monk's "Round Midnight." T.S. Monk confessed that this tune was never performed in a way that caught his attention until he heard the arrangement his former mentor, Max Roach conceived for the tune. Up-tempo would undersell it. It was fast, but it wasn't just fast. It was soulful, daring, and, at times, tear-jerking. This take on "Round Midnight" saw T.S. Monk slipping his feet into his own shoes with ease.

The T.S. Monk Sextet is: T.S. Monk: drums; Freddie Hendrix: trumpet; Willie Williams: tenor sax; Joe Ford: alto sax; Donald Vega: piano; Kenny Davis: bass.

Thelonious Monk's music was further celebrated by John Beasley's MONK'estra, a 15-piece big band also performing at Revolution Hall. Here we found Monk's music extended outward into a 2017 orchestral form, often trading Monk's rapid swing for a groove based rhythmic feel. The MONK'estra offered fresh arrangements of Monk's ouvre. Jon Beasley, who's worked with everyone from Miles Davis to the Spice Girls, made Monk's music sound contemporary. The band was outstanding on tight arrangements that retained the freedom so essential to the music, driven by an exciting, innovative rhythm section that clearly enjoyed playing together. It was decorous to hear these fleshed out versions of Monk tunes that even a casual jazz listener would recognize. Beasley, however, was not afraid to dig deep into Monk's catalog and bring out some overlooked gems.

At PDX Jazz, in 2017, Thelonious Monk's music, though nearing 80 years old, was alive and well. In a way that perhaps no other jazz composer's music can, Monk's tunes consistently offer lighthouses for the exploration of the vast sea that is jazz.

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