When it was first released in autumn 2004, Tony Kofi's Plays Monk: All Is Know (as it was then titled) was the saxophonist's first release as leader, a full thirteen years after his emergence with high-profile young Turks the Jazz Warriors. The album went on to win the BBC Jazz Awards Album Of The Year prize. To celebrate its approximate twentieth anniversary, Plays Monk has been released for the first time on vinyl, as a double album, alongside the rereleased CD. It still sounds like a winner.
The album was just one aspect of Kofi's championing of Thelonious Monk. His Quartet, which was completed by pianist Jonathan Gee, bassist Ben Hazleton and drummer Winston Clifford, began woodshedding Monk's songbook together in 2000 and debuted in autumn 2003 at the London Jazz Festival with a marathon six-hour set in which they played seventy of Monk's written compositions. The group was part of the larger Monk Liberation Front ensembleco-led by Kofi, Gee and composer Philip Clarkdedicated to bringing Monk's oeuvre to new audiences while also commissioning original work informed by the master's legacy.
So Kofi and his colleagues had already paid their dues and spent plenty of time immersing themselves in their spirit guide when it came to the recording. On Plays Monk they mix up some of the best-known Monk standards with a few lesser-known items.
Some of the tracks feature the core alto-led quartet, others ring the changes with a string arrangement (Philip Clark's sepulchral chart for "Ugly Beauty") or with Kofi playing other saxophones (the closing "Monk's Mood" on unaccompanied baritone is especially memorable). Guest artist Orphy Robinson's marimba on "Misterioso" (see video below) is a reminder of how nicely tuned percussion fits into Monk's work, probably because, without underestimating his melodic genius, he approached the piano itself as a piece of tuned percussion. (This was resoundingly demonstrated in 2019 when trumpeter Mark Kavuma's sextet reconstructed Monk's 1957 Riverside album Brilliant Corner at a one-off gig at the Barbican Centre's Art Gallery, with vibraphone taking the place of piano throughout; a review can be read here).
Kofi and his quartet still play Monk live. Twenty years on from Plays Monk: All Is Know, what are the chances of a second volume?
Side 1: Boo Boo's Birthday; Ugly Beauty; Trinkle Tinkle. Side 2: Ruby My Dear; Brilliant Corners; Comin' On The Hudson; We See. Side 3: Crepuscule With Nellie; Teo; Misterioso. Side 4: Gallop's Gallop; Light Blue; Think Of One; Monk's Mood.
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Chris May is a senior editor of All About Jazz. He was previously the editor of the pioneering magazine Black Music & Jazz Review, and more recently editor of the style / culture / history magazine Jocks & Nerds.