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Ben Riley's Monk Legacy Septet
Memories of T
Monk's Music Trio
Here are two CDs that pay homage to the great composer-pianist Thelonious Monk (1917-1982), who passed away 25 years ago this month. Though both share a common composer, the recordings are quite different.
Memories of T contains some excellent music. An overview would include great playing by all the instrumentalists, good choice of tunes (including the somewhat infrequently played "Gallop's Gallop , "Brake's Sake and "Shuffle Boil ) and excellent arrangements reminscent of the visionary ones Hall Overton did for a medium-sized band playing Monk in the early '60s. This band, led by Ben Riley (one of the world's most swinging drummers, who played with Monk on a regular basis, perhaps more than any other drummer) is similar to that Overton ensemble, this band sounding bigger than a septet because of the effective arrangements. Also the use of the guitar in place of the piano ironically provides more transparency to the vertical voicings of Monk and is one of the best examples of writing for the guitar in an ensemble since George Russell's bands (especially with guitarist Barry Galbraith).
Trumpeter Don Sickler wrote these wonderful, inventive and swinging arrangements and he mentions in the liner notes (sometimes in great detail) how he used transcriptions from varied recordings as source material. Some arrangements might use a melodic quote from a recording in 1955 and then piano voicings for a recording done in 1964. Sound confusing? Well, when you listen you will be dancing around the room: perhaps the epitome of great jazz is that its impact is immediate but its depth is revealed over years of continued, joyful listening. "Rhythm-A-Ning states the melody (with the bass saxophone giving it extra body) and the opening tenor solo uses material from Monk's Live at the It Club as a counterpoint to the solo. Then the guitar comps for part of the alto solo and then it's back to It Club material for the next alto part. Then it's all about the arrangement, but still swinging hard as if a blowing session. Then a Riley drum solo leads back into the out-head. An eight minute swinging take on "I've Got Rhythm unfolds like a symphony or is it a symphony that swings like Beethoven would have, if he knew?
Though the arrangements on Memories of T are quite intricate at times, the vivacious swing feel is never sacrificed and everyone involved - saxophonists Bruce Williams, Jay Branford, Wayne Escoffery and Jimmy Greene, guitarist Freddie Bryant and the aforementioned Sickler and Riley - turns in great solos.
Perhaps Monk's Bones follows the more common modus operandi of head, solos, head-out, but it is a heartfelt effort. The version of "Ugly-Beauty is poignant: a gentler dynamic and a slower tempo than the original (from Monk's Underground). "Monk's Dream and "Little Rootie Tootie exploit the two trombones' (Roswell Rudd and Max Perkoff) brash tone quality and emphasize it by harmonizing parts of the melodies in dissonant parallel intervals.
Standing apart and far to the left of the other tunes on this CD is the arrangement of "Friday the 13th . Monk's original tune is quite unique within his own oeuvre, perhaps his most simple: a repeating four-bar phrase (over a two-bar harmonic rhythm). Here drummer Chuck Bernstein begins alone on the berimbau (a Brazilian percussion instrument that uses a single string as its percussive drone) that sonically and rhythmically breaks away from common jazz orchestration. Eventually he establishes a groove over which Monk's melody (transposed from the original key of G to E here) enters. The two trombones in particular begin to improvise in counterpoint but soon all musicians are freely improvising to the berimbau groove. The absence of the piano is also striking because it allows the berimbau, bass and two trombones work in the 'cracks' of pitch: the frequencies in between a piano's F and F# for instance. A truly unique performance!
Tracks and Personnel
Memories of T
Tracks: Let's Call This; Rhythm-A-Ning; Gallap's Gallop; Nutty; Brake's Sake; Pannonica; Straight, No Chaser; Bemsha Swing; Shuffle Boil; Green Chimneys; Epistrophy.
Personnel: Ben Riley, drums; Don Sickler, trumpet; Bruce Williams, alto and soprano saxophones; Wayne Escoffery, tenor saxophone; Jimmy Greene, tenor saxophone; Jay Brandford, baritone and bass saxophones; Freddie Bryant, guitar; Kiyoshi Kitagawa, bass; Peter Washington, bass.
Tracks: Monk's Dream; Crepuscule With Nellie; San Francisco Holiday; Ugly Beauty; Little Rootie Tootie; 'Round Midnight; Friday the 13th; Blue Monk; I Mean You.
Personnel: Chuck Bernstein, drums; Si Perkoff, piano; Sam Bevan, bass; Roswell Rudd, trombone; Max Perkoff, trombone.