I ran a coffeehouse and performance space in the early nineties, the only requirement I had of the bands that performed is that they must play a Thelonious Monk tune. Most worked up a rendition of the blues-based “Straight, No Chaser” rather than tackle the difficult “Epistrophy.” For me, it was the test of their ability to play modern jazz, not just fake it. For many listeners, Monk is the measuring stick for grading the latest greatest jazz star. But Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd have been covering Monk since the early sixties. The pair both got a start in Dixieland, Lacy a Sidney Bechet disciple and Rudd followed jack Teagarden and Kid Ory. Both were drawn to the avant-garde joining Cecil Taylor’s band in the 1950s. Lacy was the only saxophonist playing the straight soprano until John Coltrane popularized it. It remains the main instrument while most pick it up as their second saxophone. Roswell Rudd is the avant-garde when it comes to the trombone, recording with The New York Art Quartet in 1964 and also on their reunion album last year (see March 2000 review). Lacy has made the music of Thelonious Monk his life’s work, recording numerous solo sessions beginning in the late 1950s. Together, the Lacy-Rudd quartet played a repertoire of some 55 Monk tunes from 1961-1964. The only evidence of it being the poorly recorded live date School Days (Hat Art 1963) with bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Dennis Charles.
This recording is, amazingly, the bands first studio date! Joined by long-time Lacy associates bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch, the reunion of Rudd and Lacy is a document of that past and, more important, a blueprint for the future of jazz. The band covers only two Monk tunes, but Lacy’s approach to composing has encompassed the spirit and style of the high priest of bebop. Ellington’s “Koko” is mined for its brilliance today, just as it once was by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Rudd is the perfect foil for Lacy emitting a growl or blat-a-tat behind the lyrical lines of the soprano. In contrast to today’s solo improvisers, a pair or quartet’s improvisation creates a joyful euphoric experience. I was even able to swallow the two tracks that featured Irene Aebi’s semi-classical singing of Zen poems. For me Monk’s music is the standard on which to judge all comers.
Track List:Monk’s Dream; The Bath; The Rent; Pannonica; A Bright Pearl; Traces; Koko; Grey Blue; The Door.
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