With so many tribute albums to jazz icon Thelonious Monk already made, it's hard to imagine how much more can be added to the pianist's canon without becoming redundant. Perhaps, however, it's not all that surprising that an album of Monk material featuring Dutch wildman/drummer Han Bennink, piano phenom Michiel Borstalp and bassist Ernst Glerum, would find fresh new ways to interpret Monk's body of work and, with no shortage of New Dutch Swing, bring its own sense of playful idiosyncrasy to the table.
Aside from mirroring Monk's curiously playful approach with the same Dutch levity and absurdity that Bennink and Glerum bring to larger ensembles like ICP Orchestra and pianist Misha Mengelberg's various groups, a distinguishing feature of Monk
is that Bennink plays nothing but a single snare drum. In many cases Bennink manages to do, with that single drum augmented by his sticks, brushes and hands, what other drummers sometimes struggle to accomplish with an entire kit. Just a set of brushes and some appropriately placed timing make the knotty "Four in One" swing, with Bennink's accents always intuitive, relevant and never superfluous. He turns more dynamic on the lesser-known "Think of One" while, on the often-covered "Myserioso," Bennink alters the feel throughout with the subtlest of shifts, turning it into a viscerally grooving yet spacious blues. Glerum is at his most robust, while Borstlap is liberated, light-hearted and, at the same time, gutsy, as the entire trio sympathetically covers surprising territory in a brief five minutes.
Borstlap is a player with few (if any) limits, playing music ranging from the groove-happy Eldorado
(Gramercy Park, 2008) to freely improvised duets with drummer Bill Bruford on In Two Minds
(Summerfold, 2008), and clever acoustic reinventions of Weather Report tunes on Body Acoustic
(Emarcy, 1999). Here he's deeply in tune with both the tradition and the spirit of Monk; in turns poignant on the balladic "Pannonica," and lithely swinging with just a hint of sharp eccentricity on the mid-tempo "Epistrophy."
Glerum is a perennially underrated bassist who, like his trio-mates here, has proven himself capable of anythingespecially in genre-bending groups like ICP, which moves from complex arrangement to crazed improvisation and back at the drop of a dime. Here he's more centrist, if anything, the flexible anchor that holds everything together while, at the same time, responding to the various push-and-pulls Borstlap and Bennink suggest. He throws a few twists and turns of his own into a Latin-esque version of "Bye-Ya," where he busies up towards the end, and a rubato reading of "Crepuscule with Nellie" that may be the album's most brilliant yet completely understated track.
There are plenty of surprises in the way this trio approach the music of Monk; but unpredictability is a trademark of the Dutch scene. Still, Monk
is plenty centrist enough for the mainstream-at-heart, but with plenty of the unexpected for those familiar with these three marvelous and, at times, appropriately comedic musicians.