Wadada Leo Smith comes to the music of Thelonious Monk from a childhood admiration of the artist. As a pre-teen he was already playing trumpet and composing and instinctively knew that Monk's understanding of music and sound would influence his own creativity. Smith believes that the quintessence of Monk can best be found in his solo work. The same can be said for Smith who has produced two previous solo collections including Creative Music1 (1972) and Solo Music: Ahkreanvention (1979), both on the Kabell label. That same label reissued both solo albums on two of the four discs included on The Kabell Years, 1971-1979 (Tzadic, 2004). Smith later released Kulture Jazz (ECM, 1993) another solo outing but with the trumpeter assuming a number of instrumental roles as well as some vocalizing, and Red Sulphur Sky (Tzadik Records, 2001).
Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk feature four classic Monk compositions and four original pieces inspired by the eclectic pianist. The opening "Ruby, My Dear" sets the tone for the album; reflective in its quietly appealing interpretation of the original while "Reflections" tackles Monk's complicated mix of melancholy phrasing and irregular intervals. Monk recorded so many versions of "Crepuscule with Nellie" that Smith's reading is impossible to plot on the timeline. Similarly, "´Round Midnight" was not only a frequent Monk track, but has been recorded by more artists than any other jazz standard. Smith's rendition makes the silences as pivotal as the music and adds a charming sense of mystery.
Inter-dispersed throughout the covers are Smith's original pieces. "Monk and His Five Point Ring at the Five Spot Café" is inspired by a Monk documentary scene where he steps away and returns to the piano at intervals; a pattern that is mimicked by Smith's trumpet. "Adagio: Monkishness -A Cinematic Vision of Monk Playing Solo Piano" is inspired by Monk's ballads and "Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium -A Mystery" by a somewhat convoluted dream where Smith imagines the title characters in the unlikely setting of Shea Stadium.
Along with an affinity for Monk's music, Smith has a methodological connection to the composer. In his liner notes, Smith explains that Monk went through periods of not performing as much as researching music. In an informal way he would share his concepts with the likes of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Smith too spent years in exploration and is one of creative music's preeminent educators. Whatever paths Smith has followed, the journey has resulted in a career that will inevitably be as celebrated as that of Monk. Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk is arguably the best work that Smith has recorded. There is a somber tranquility throughout and the warmer, rounder sound of the trumpet gives the Monk pieces new life in an alternate universe. Very highly recommended.
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.