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Mike Neer: Steelonious


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I'm not a big fan of Thelonious Monk tribute albums. Heck, I'm not even keen on other musicians including his songs on their albums. No matter how accomplished the artist, Monk's music always feels like those paint-by-the-numbers coloring books from when I was a kid. Only Monk can bring the essential soul and turmoil to his music. It's a highly personal sound that requires his hand, his breathing and his mood. Everything else feels like a fake.

In 2012, I made an exception when I praised Greg Lewis's Organ Monk: Uwo In The Black—an album featuring Greg Lewis on Hammond organ backed by Reginald Woods (ts), Ron Jackson (g) and Nasheet Waits (d). It's a completely out-of-sight album that takes Monk's music to another galaxy of excitement.

Now I want to hip you to another Monk tribute album that has blown my mind. It's Mike Neer's Steelonious, which was just released a couple of weeks ago. Neer plays lap steel guitar and he's backed by Matt King (p, org), Andrew Hall (b), Diego Voglino (d, perc) and Tom Beckham (vib, on tracks 4 and 9).

The beautiful thing about this album is that Neer retains a distinctly Western feel on the lap steel but is deep into the jazz idiom, along with King, who is extraordinary here on piano. On songs like 'Round Midnight, Neer even brings a feel akin to Santo & Johnny's 1959 hit Sleep Walk. So inventive and smart. Best of all, Neer's album feels contemporary, thanks to his exceptional arrangements.

What I love most is how much Neer loves Monk's music. He pulls every nuance and sensual feel out of the Monk works and grafts them onto the lap steel guitar, adding to Monk's already hypnotic and mystical music.

This album is so good that each time I wanted to isolate a song and drill down to let you know why it's exceptional, I came to realzie that such singling out was impossible. There are 12 Monk songs on this album and evey one is better than the last. If I were forced to point to three, they would be 'Round Midnight, Bemsha Swing and Ask Me Now.

Neer clearly knows his music—from the country and western players of the early 1900s to the rockabilly greats mid-decade, surf rock players in the late 1950s and the Nashville greats of the 1960s. Neer's heroes include Sol Hoʻopiʻi and Speedy West.

What's even more surprising is how Neer takes all of it and swings it under Monk's compositions without ever upending the pianist's original intent or feel. Like John Scofield's new jazz-country fusion album, Country for Old Men, reviewed in an earlier post, Steelonious travels in the other direction—from country to jazz—and the results are just as exciting.

Jazz isn't dead. You just have to look a little harder to find the real excitement and innovation. As Neer proves, jazz is just over that yonder hill.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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