Forget the comic book heroes Batman, Spiderman and the Fantastic Four. I've been a member of an international force for good called "the guardians of the Thelonious Monk legacy. Our mission is to protect the music Monk wrote nearly fifty years ago from those up to hijinks. I've terminated would-be hackers from botching the sacred "Round Midnight and focused my super powers on the bar band playing one more blues drenched "Straight No Chaser. This thankless job, performed with chest out and fisted hands resting on hips, comes with the satisfaction that our children and our children's children will live in a world full of Monk.
Two recent Monk cover sightings have alerted the guardians into action. While my co-workers are at brunch, I spring from my desk shedding my disguise as a mere mortal...
Saxophonist Sam Newsome presents ten of his favorite Monk compositions and five, as he calls them, "sound-palate cleansers, being Monk abstractions for soprano saxophone. Of course, taking on Monk's music via soprano saxophone has been done before, Steve Lacy being the archetype player. Lacy's torch-bearing for Monk is well known and documented. Newsome pays heavy respects to Lacy's work, while extending the concept of a solo saxophone concert.
These short-ish pieces (the longest is 5 minutes) will be instantly recognizable to Monk fans. Newsome doesn't so much deconstruct Monk as he personalizes him. On "Misterioso and "Rhythm-a-ning he begins by pecking out notes with his circular breathing before bridging with multi-phonics. These string bass imitations are just part and parcel of his one-man band approach. Elsewhere, as on "Twinkle-Tinkle, he flutters piano notes and multi-phonics through his horn like a two-horn front line. His playing is everywhere both old and new, you hear soprano saxophonists Sidney Bechet and Evan Parker, sometime within the same stanza!
He states "Boo Boo's Birthday then echoes it back without studio effects or overdubs. This studied and imaginative approach never lags over the CD's fifty minutes. Newsome programs five "Monk Abstractions throughout the recording as interludes, as a contrast to the familiar Monk themes. Freed from our expectations. On "No. 2 he jockeys into the circular world Evan Parker fancies; on "No. 3 the chamber approach to multi- phonics.
In his well crafted liner notes, Newsome acknowledges his four saxophone influences to be Lacy, Sonny Rollins, Evan Parker and Anthony Braxton. Certainly good company to keep, but Newsome doesn't merely mimick those players: he has assimilated their music music into his own concept.
Newsome also explains in his notes that Monk wrote most of his work for the right-hand, treble-end of the piano keyboard, and observes that this makes it well suited for soprano saxophone. That may be true, but Newsome expands the sound of a single soprano saxophone into a one man band.
Scott Amendola/Ben Goldberg/Devin Hoff
Long Song Records
A bit more raucous, but no less worthy a tribute to Monk, is this disc by the trio Plays Monk. This pianoless group features clarinetist Ben Goldberg (New Klezmer Trio, Junk Genius, Tin Hat, Ben Goldberg's Brainchild), bassist Devin Hoff (Nels Cline Singers, Beth Custer), and drummer Scott Amendola (Nels Cline, Jenny Scheinman, Scott Amendola band).
Amendola's band T.J. Kirk has previously celebrated three artistsMonk, James Brown and Rahsaan Roland Kirkand Goldberg's Junk Genius has taken a snarky punk attitude towards bebop and folk music. Likewise Hoff's duo Good For Cows with drummer Ches Smith poses a punk attitude towards improvising and jazz.
The disc opens with the rapid-paced "Skippy, performed at almost breakneck speed to let you know these cats can play. Goldberg's clarinet recognizes the soprano saxophone, and establishes its sound as hip unto itself. Hoff finds the pace comfortable, beating his snare and pacing his cymbals in full sympathy.
The trio's muscular approach to "Work and "Four In One, and the lesser known Monk tracks "Teo and "Shuffle Boil, hold the attention throughout. The "missing" piano is filled by the musical commentary of all three in nearly equal parts. They cover the softer "Reflections" with passion and clarity. Goldberg's bright clarinet states the theme taking the track straight on. The bright take on "Little Rootie Tootie features the creative soloing of Amendola.
These tracks prove that Monk's music is being passed safely down to the next generation of jazz improvisers.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Monk Abstraction No. 1; Boo Boo's Birthday; Skippy; Ask Me Now; Monk Abstraction No. 2; Misterioso; Four In One; Monk Abstraction No. 3; Ugly Beauty; Monk Abstraction No. 4; Straight No Chaser; Crepuscule With Nellie; Rhythm-a-ning; Monk Abstraction No. 5; Twinkle-Tinkle.
Personnel: Sam Newsome: soprano saxophone.
Tracks: Skippy; Boo Boo's Birthday; Work; Reflections; Little Rootie Tootie; Green Chimneys; Shuffle Boil; Four In One; Eronel; Teo.
Personnel: Scott Amendola: drums; Devin Hoff: bass; Ben Goldberg: clarinet.