Twentieth-century jazz offered bountiful gifts that musicians will continue to mine for, well, as long as people play jazz. One gift is pianist Thelonious Monk's compositions, which are surely among the music's most original and appealing; as Past Daily states, you can never get too much Monk in your diet. Another gift is the nonet format on Birth of the Cool (Capitol, 1957); Monk himself had a nonet at one point, but the Birth of the Cool sessions are unique due to exquisite arrangements by Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, and Pete Rugolo, which, among other things, skillfully integrate tuba and French horn into the small group format.
In Monks Mood, Swedish pianist, composer, and arranger Goran Strandberg combines both these gifts, plus the magic ingredient of top-notch musicians. Strandberg's career as a pianist is long and fruitful: he was part of bassist Red Mitchell's group Communication and, over the years, has played or recorded with a wide range of luminaries including saxophonists Lee Konitz and Dexter Gordon, singer Helen Merrill, and trumpeters Thad Jones, Art Farmer, and Clark Terry. In addition to his work as a pianist, Strandberg is renowned for his abilities as a composer and arranger, including his work with the venerable Stockholm Jazz Orchestra, which can be heard on several of its releases.
Strandberg executes the twelve tunes on Monks Mood with wit and ingenuity. Standouts include a joyful version of "Bye-Ya" that's full of vibrant swing and crisp section work. The song includes a spirited solo by trombonist (and Göran's brother) Bertil Strandberg, as well as a tenor sax solo by Robert Nordmark that snakes with marvelously sinuous lines. A gorgeous rendering of "Crepuscule with Nellie" begins with Strandberg's two minutes of solo piano, allowing the stark beauty of the melody to speak for itself. When the other musicians come in, they take the song at a leisurely pace, savoring each crevice of Monk's uniquely angular world, with drummer and Swedish jazz stalwart Bengt Stark offering tastefully subtle accompaniment throughout. "Evidence" starts with a spacious bass solo by Kenji Rabson, then Klas Toresson's alto sax pries the song open, starting out swinging and building into a powerfully liquid solo that culminates in a blast of raw energy. The nonet's version of "'Round Midnight" is simmering and achingly sad, with a haunting melodic statement by trumpeter Karl Olandersson and a rich range of colors added by Petter Carlson's French horn and Per-Åke Holmlander's tuba.
The music of Thelonious Sphere Monk is a gift that keeps on giving. And although the Birth of the Cool nonet recorded only one album and played just a handful of live dates, the spirit and architecture of that group continues to inspire. Strandberg has artfully combined these two streams into a fine work that honors both traditions, while allowing ample space for his excellent group of musicians to shine.
Bye-Ya; Crepuscule with Nellie; Epistrophy; Evidence; Monk's Mood; Off Minor;
Misterioso; I Mean You; Straight No Chaser; ’Round Midnight; Let’s Call This; Rhythm-
Karl Olandersson: trumpet; Klas Toresson: alto saxophone; Robert Nordmark: tenor
saxophone; Petter Carlson: French horn; Bertil Strandberg: trombone; Per-Åke
Holmlander: tuba; Göran Strandberg: piano and arrangements; Kenji Rabson: bass;
Bengt Stark: drums.
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