Monkadelphia at Chris' Jazz Cafe

Victor L. Schermer BY

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Chris' Jazz Café
January 2, 2010

This reviewer decided to kick off the New Year jazz season by going to hear Monkadelphia at Chris' Jazz Café. Recently, he has been immersed in Robin D.G. Kelley's excellent new biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009); he also is a fan of Monkadelphia, a group of Philadelphia-based musicians who render Monk's tunes with their own panache, driving force and creative improvisations. This night was no exception.

While starting out as a kind of "fringe" group, during the roughly 10 years of its existence (a long tenure for any jazz combo), Monkadelphia's playing has taken on a straight-ahead feel, with periodic nods to Monk's unusual syncopations and attention to his novel chord progressions. Driven by Jim Miller's superb drumming, on this night, they gave the collective feel of some of the best bands of the 1960s, like those of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, the Jazz Messengers and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Rarely is jazz played as energetically and sharply as what Monkadelphia delivered on this wintry evening. It was a pleasure to listen to them deconstruct Monk and put him together again with bebop and hard bop rhythms. These were changes Monk himself helped develop, although he singularly added the element of stride rhythms, which the group underplayed.

Monkadelphia's artistry is a testimony to what happens when a group of dedicated musicians undergoes a sustained evolution by focusing on music that is truly meaningful to them. The artists also pride themselves on being a leaderless group, one in which each player has equal status; while saxophonist Chris Farr served as a fine emcee for the set, the musicians gave and received on an equal playing field. Each was given ample time for solos, while their ensemble playing was collectively integrated without any one musician dominating the tunes. The result was a set of sustained and tight-knit music making; the listener's attention never flagged.

Monk's music is challenging enough, and the group doesn't flinch in taking on the complex chord progressions and rhythmic alterations he invented. With "Evidence," "Let's Call This" and "Reflections," the players were able to consistently swing, while finding ample opportunities to "Monk-key" around, as Thelonious himself did. Each took terrific solos and traded fours and eights with panache. Pianist Tom Lawton, vibraphonist Tony Miceli and bassist Micah Jones, as well as Farr and Miller, are all seasoned players to be reckoned with; these artists like to push the limits of what they can do. Miller happens to head up the record company Dreambox Media, which is going to release Monkadelphia's second CD, a date recorded in the studio. Miller showed himself to be a world class drummer in this set, and his soloing on "Bright Mississippi" was memorable.

The player of the evening, if there can be one in such a democratically constructed group, was Miceli on vibes. This humbly devoted vibraphonist deserves a place among the greatest vibes players of all time—such as Milt Jackson and Gary Burton—and indeed even exceeds them in many respects. Micel's playing had a transcendent glow. He was no longer playing notes, but rather, a la Coltrane, developing ideas that seemed to come from a source beyond himself. And he must have learned something from his guitarist friend, the great Jimmy Bruno, because his runs were so rapid and well executed that it was as if he had a couple of rogue virtual mallets helping him out. The four that he uses with his well-known stoned grip seemed not enough to do what he did.

Thelonious Monk sometimes came across as an oddball who confused some of his musicians and audiences. He suffered from bipolar disorder and was known for eccentricities such as frequently spinning around on his feet, which he once executed in a revolving door. When, on his first European trip, he alienated audiences in Paris, Gerry Mulligan, who was with him on the gig, recognized his genius. He said supportively to Monk, "Some people may not listen, but I'll be listening. Just look back at me when you play."

Fundamentally, Monk was a daring and innovative pianist and composer who changed the face of jazz. His legacy lives on forever, exemplified in this sterling set by Monkadelphia at Chris' Café.

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