Don’t let the title of this release from Princeton University (or the impressionistic cover art) throw you off–balance or dissuade you from listening. Monk and Mingus were free–thinkers, there’s no doubt of that; but they weren’t so free that they abandoned the basic building blocks of Jazz or any other music — melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint and so on — and neither has the Monk/Mingus Ensemble under Tony Branker. Much of the music on Sounds from the Free–Thinking is as lovely as it is provocative, an aspect that is consistently emphasized by the Ivy Leaguers (with help on two selections from guest trumpeter Ted Curson — and it’s good to hear him again). The exception is Mingus’s “What Love?,” the answer to which seems to lie somewhere between bedlam and dissonance. Mingus more than makes up for that anomaly, however, with the soulful “Noddin’ Ya Head Blues” (on which the rhythm section smolders) and Messengers–like “Opus #3” (an irrepressible cooker that taxes everyone’s chops to the limit). As every number except “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” (featuring vocalist Marissa Steingold) clocks in at more than seven minutes, there’s ample room to stretch, and no one disappoints, with exemplary choruses by Asher, Viaclovsky, Mathew and especially Abrams and Rosse who help drummers Weiss or Widman keep the machinery humming smoothly along. Curson is a standout on Don Sickler’s dancing arrangement of “’Round Midnight,” but even he can’t rescue “What Love?,” which opens well but soon degenerates into a clamorous pastiche that may be cerebral but is almost wholly unpleasant. Not all the music is by Monk or Mingus; there’s one original, Mathews’ “Sphere Not,” and it’s a respectable medium–tempo romp that is faithful to the Monk/Mingus muse (and includes another topnotch solo by Abrams). Abrams arranged “Sound of Love,” Asher scored Monk’s “Nutty,” Branker “Opus #3” and “What Love?” A vibrant session by a surprisingly capable group of young musicians.
Track listing: ’Round Midnight; Sphere Not; Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love; What Love?; Nutty; Noddin’ Ya Head Blues; Opus #3 (60:33).
Anthony Branker, director; Eli Asher, trumpet, flugelhorn; Jeff Viaclovsky, Vivek Mathew, tenor sax; Doug Abrams, piano; Julian Rosse, bass; Dan Weiss, Jason Widman, drums; Marissa Steingold, vocal (