The Thelonious Monk canon has proved to be fertile ground for jazz musicians' explorations. The reasons range from a sincere and deep appreciation of Monk's melodic and harmonic approaches to a sort of a quirky fascination with the eccentricity of some of Monk's off-center sounds. Pianist Michael McNeill's trio effort, Refractions, is less a hagiography of all things Monk, more the crew setting a musical challenge for themselves, then diving deeply into seven Monk classics. The result is an enlightening exploration that is intriguing, seductive, and a display of fine musicianship.
"Ugly Beauty," the oxymoronically-titled ballad, is a slow, textured foray into the quasi-atonal with McNeill wringing every possible juice out of the selection. The interaction with bassist Danny Zeimann and drummer John Bacon sets the stage for the trio's fine collaborative work on the session thereafter. "Hackensack," more quirky Monk, is a hefty "Lady Be Good" swinger with McNeill's neatly developed solo over his mates' intense drive. Bassist Ziemann delivers an engaging solo here.
Pianist McNeill has deep chops, knows his Monk, exhibits a palpable approach to the keyboard, and demonstrates fine taste on "Light Blue" a less-frequently recorded Monk selection. Drummer Bacon also shines on the date, using his kit instrumentally to bring additional colors and textures to the game. Ziemann injects superb support and commentary.
"Refractions" is offered here as a minimalist's garden of Monk-ish paradoxical delightsslow and very laid-back. Swinging tastefully with upbeat solos, "Let's Cool One" follows and brightens the mood. "Monk's Mood," offering a palette of pastel aural colors, and "Straight No Chaser," a Ziemann-fueled burner, closes the session as highlights.
Refractions will tease, involve, and satisfy both Monk aficionados and newbies alike. Be curious.