It’s nice to hear Dave Liebman undo a few buttons and dig in with a trio session. Of late the sax icon has taken to larger ensembles and concept albums. The only concept here is Monk, and Liebman’s only guests are Eddie Gomez on bass and Adam Nussbaum on drums. Seldom-played gems such as "Teo," "Gallop’s Gallop," "Introspection," and "Skippy" make this not just another Monk tribute. However, bookending the program with "Monk’s Mood" is not original—Danilo Perez did the same on his 1996 Impulse release, Panamonk.
Liebman divides his time between tenor and soprano, playing the larger horn on five of the disc’s eleven tracks. His tenor work on "Nutty" and "Monk’s Dream" is especially hot. Listen for echoes of Sonny Rollins’s 1958 trio with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones. "Reflections," another tenor track, is played as a very slow ballad and finds Lieb sounding a bit like Joe Henderson. Nussbaum is at his most subtle on "Pannonica," and gives "Ugly Beauty," "Introspection," and "Teo" an interesting, almost funky twist.
The best track award goes to "Skippy." Gomez and Liebman nail the boppish melody together and then Gomez is off and running. Liebman’s soprano foray is pointed and aggressive. When the melody returns, Gomez vocalizes along in his trademark fashion, which somehow turns the excitement up a notch. The disc closes on a mellower note, with Liebman playing not-half-bad piano on "Monk’s Mood" while Gomez handles the melody.
In his liner notes Liebman candidly writes about seeing Monk live in the 60s. "I will admit," he says, "that the sameness of presentation, personnel, tempos and repertoire sometimes bored me." It was only later in life that Liebman fully began to appreciate Monk’s music. There’s something quite refreshing about Liebman’s ability to tell it to us straight. Tribute records can come across as impersonal exercises in obligatory reverence. Liebman instead lets us in on his aesthetic experience. He involves his audience in his own musical maturation process. And many of us will no doubt identify. We bullshit ourselves and others by claiming that we emerged from the musical womb already digging Duke and Coltrane and Dolphy and the rest. Much jazz is and should be an acquired taste. Liebman’s love for Monk came with time and effort, and the music on this disc is stronger for it.