In 2016 John Beasley
gifted us with John Beasley Presents Monk'estra Volume 1
(Mack Avenue). The buzz of that superb record led to John Beasley Presents Monk'estra Volume 2
(Mack Avenue, 2017). Both records were Grammy nominated for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. They were both more than Grammy worthy, but alas the competition is fierce.
Beasley has been more than a Thelonious Monk
fan throughout his life, including his now over forty years in the music industry. Monk's music has served as both a mentor and the gold standard of piano-based jazz. Beasley, along with Chick Corea
, are on the same plane when it comes to being in touch with Monk's mindset. They both deeply understand it and can play it in uncanny Monk fashion. With his Monk'estra big band, Beasley pushes the envelope further.
Although there were legions of fans back in the 1950s and 1960s when Monk was composing and playing his remarkable music, there were just as many that didn't get it. He was well ahead of his time. Monk in the twenty first century fits like a glove. His time is now. Beasley has released a third album. Monk'estra Plays Beasley
(Mack Avenue, 2020), that once again has been nominated for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. Perhaps third time will be the charm for a much-deserved Grammy. The jazz classic "Donna Lee" is reimagined on the album and is also nominated for Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella. There are likely hundreds of versions of "Donna Lee" that have been recorded over the years. Yet Beasley managed to dress Donna up in spicy new wardrobe that catches the ear.
Monk primarily presented his music in trio, quartet, or quintet ensembles. The big band approach broadens the spectrum yet artfully maintains the Monk essentials of melody, quirkiness, and improvisation. However, unlike the first two records, as the title suggests, Monk'estra is now mostly playing Beasley compositions. It is within these compositions that you hear, with great detail, just how much he is invested in Monk. Or perhaps just how much Monk has marinated Beasley's musical toolbox. They all sound as if they could have been written by Monk as his improvisational style and melodic turns are appropriately in place. Stops, starts, unexpected changes, and Monk's playful jubilance are all delightfully in play. It would be a relatively good thing if this new record was a carryover of more of the same. The first two Monk'estra records are that exceptional. What we get instead is growth and free flowing exploration. The evolution process at work.
Long known in the industry as a premier arranger, Beasley is second to no one when it comes to writing charts. As mentioned earlier, Beasley album pushes the envelope further. That is accomplished in a big way with charts and arrangements that are brilliantly conceived and executed. A modern jazz feel encompasses what at its core is still very much Monk inspired music. If you perceive jazz in colors, then get set for a full kaleidoscope.
You are treated to fourteen songs on the album, all of which have a unique character and are performed with impeccable precision. You need not go past the first song, Beasley's "Steve-O," to be entrenched with a multitude of variant horn section arrangements that pop in and out and circle each other in a joyous maze of creativity. A high-end listening experience for sure, that also features a playful hornbop bop-sound that brings that fun Monk quirkiness to the fore. In all there are eight Beasley tunes, four Monk tunes, and, for good measure a Duke Ellington
composition, in addition to the aforementioned "Donna Lee" written by Miles Davis
and Charlie Parker
. In each there are off the charts (pun intended) arrangements that make you smile while getting into the depth and complexities of such heavenly rich jazz.
Beasley plays piano here with great subtlety and command-and with the spirit of Monk to guide him. In addition to his stellar band, anchored mostly by bassist Benjamin Shepherd
, the record also features such special guest stars as bassist John Patitucci
, harmonicist Gregoire Maret
, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta
, saxophonist Bob Sheppard
, keyboardist Joey DeFrancesco
, and flautist Hubert Laws
DeFrancesco lights up his Hammond B3 on an amalgamation of Monk tunes "Rhythm-A-Ning" and "Evidence." This in tandem with a blistering and heart pounding big band arrangement from the fertile musical mind of Beasley. This flying romp is a tribute to the full glory of the upbeat and swinging big band era. That said, it should be noted that not every song is big band laced. Such as Beasley's "Implication," that is delivered as a quintet. Patitucci and Colaiuta could ride the pocket in their sleep. Here they are wide awake and offer up intelligent conversation with Beasley, Sheppard, and trombonist Ryan Dragon
. Sheppard engages in a tasty high-end bass clarinet solo. Maret brings his magic to "Monk's Mood," and Laws takes Monk's "Locomotive" further up the tracks. Beasley's cunning arrangements encourage his stellar guests to breathe, to improvise, and honor their space.
Beasley assembled a large group of top shelf musicians, and knew precisely what to do with them. His writing and arrangement skills are beyond reproach. All the pieces fit snugly inside his artistically creative musical puzzle. He pays homage to Monk in grand style. Despite several nominations over the past years, Beasley has not yet been awarded a Grammy. With this monumental effort, the time has come for the genre's preeminent chart master.
Steve-O; Sam Rivers; Monk's Mood; Donna Lee; Song For Dub; Five Spot; Implication; Intermission; Masekela; Rhythm-A-Ning/Evidence; Off Minor; Be.YOU.tiful; Locomotive; Come Sunday.
Saxophones/Woodwinds: Chris Lewis; Tom Peterson; Tom Luer. Trombones: Ryan Dragon; Ido Meshulam; Steve Hughes. Trumpets/Flugelhorns: James Ford; Rashawn Ross. Synthesizer: Steve Tavaglione.