In the hundredth anniversary year of Thelonious Monk's birth, there won't be many better or more heartfelt tributes than this solo recital by trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. In an astonishing late career flowering Smith has released a string of stupendous recordings for everything from large ensembles to intimate duets, with his monumental Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012) the standout entry.
But Solo: Reflections And Meditations On Monk constitutes his first unaccompanied outing since Red Sulphur Sky (Tzadik, 2001). Superbly recorded during three sessions in 2014 and 2015, with a slight studio resonance adding to the epic feel, the program is equally split between four Monk tunes and four from his own pen inspired by episodes in the pianist's life.
Smith chooses two classics and two lesser known works from the Monk canon and makes them entirely his own. In particular he conveys emotional weight through his mastery of dynamics and tone. As the tender rendition of the opening "Ruby, My Dear" suggests, Smith emphasizes the lyricism of Monk's numbers rather than their angularity and offkilter dissonant touches. Just before the concluding theme reprise, Smith introduces a lovely delicate filigree flutter which is illustrative of the many exquisite moments which pepper the disc.
Overall the set is introspective and somber. Smith also sticks close to his credo of the surrounding silences being as important as the sound, especially obvious during the fanfares, flurries and tremolos of "Monk and His Five Point Ring at the Five Spot Café." Here as elsewhere it enhances both the gravitas and vulnerability of his performance. Smith brings his marvelous structural sense to bear on both the originals and the covers. His extemporizations, like those on the understated "Reflections," are based on a continuation of expression and mood rather than chord changes. And they sound like compositions -considered, balanced, concise, and free of flab.
Smith even seems to refer to some Monkish intervals in his own pieces, like the soaring "Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium -A Mystery," which after a sequence of pure high notes, ends on an unresolved phrase, like a question mark. It makes for a wonderfully satisfying, coherent and unified whole.
Ruby, My Dear; Monk and His Five Point Ring at the Five Spot Café; Reflections; Adagio: Monkishness - A Cinematic Vision of Monk Playing Solo Piano; Crepuscule with Nellie; Adagio: Monk, the Composer in Sepia - A Second Vision Thelonious Monk; Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium - A Mystery; ´Round Midnight.