That scrappy, enterprising and creative jazz label out of Philadelphia, Encounter Records, has done it again by documenting some encounters of that city's musicians with the artist known as Monk.
Rather than retreading often-heard arrangements of Monk's tunes, with only the players changing, the Philadelphians of "Monkadelphia" have created their own approach to Thelonious' challenging music. Recorded before an audience at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, the style that distinguishes this CD involves colors and texture. The contributions of the group's co-founder, vibraphonist Tony Miceli, doesn't create a problem of chorded instrument collision, as might be expected, but rather enrich the concert with shimmers, interjections and referential Monk-like tremolos. The musician of the other chorded instrumentpianist and the other co-founder, Tom Lawtonaccompanies, startles and expands upon the music's implications. Miceli's role becomes ever more evident as the CD proceeds. "Ugly Beauty," for example, unfolds pedal by pedal until the fullness of the performance's scope becomes clear, mostly because Miceli leads a rhythmic free-for-all with Micah Jones on bass and Jim Miller on drums until it dissolves into a bass-led melody.
In addition, tenor saxophonist Chris Farr assumes the Charlie Rouse role, while singer Suzanne Cloud recalls the classic Carmen McRae work on "Carmen Sings Monk." While Farr goes angular during the CD's opening track, "We See," Miceli calms things down by redirecting the rhythm with a vibes solo that seemingly inspires Lawton to romp through a two-handed exercise of Monk-like wake-up calls involving unexpected pounding and upper-register play. Bassist Jones brings home a fun and precisely articulated solo, leading the listener to believe that "Monkadelphia" will consist of trading of solos on each of the tunes.
No so. The Monkadelphians are more talented and clever than that.
"Ask Me Now" consists of a voice and piano colloquy, Cloud taking the lead and Lawton obviously watching her on stage to fill in accompaniment until it's his turn to step forth in full bloom of spare and ruminative solo development. On the other hand, "Monk's Mood" starts with an eloquent interchange between Farr and Miceli, the rhythm elastic and the melody investigated from out of the box. They develop more of a streaming of the music, instead of the more familiar start-and-stop feel of the tune. "Thelonious" positively pops and percolates with vibes and tenor phrasing until the song's essence finally is distilled into a straight-ahead, or straighter-ahead, feel. "Four In One" evolves into medley of Monk tunes, including "Skippy" and "Trinkle Tinkle". The difficulty of the three tunes' lines, played with assertiveness and unisoned accuracy, converge into a conclusion making plain the obvious shared inspiration behind the compositions.
Unrestrained by conventional, and ironically standardized, approaches to Monk's tunes, the musicians of "Monkadelphia", while drawing upon the same influence, take his music in personalized directions. Which is as it should be.