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Those who seek to create a tribute album of Thelonious Monk music face one big obstacle: how do you capture Monk's idiosyncratic style without sounding like a pale imitation? You could just record cover versions of his songs and leave it at that, but the end result wouldn't really capture the pianist's oddball genius, so what would be the point?
Perhaps Sean McGowan has found the best solution: adapt Monk's music to a different instrument than piano. Sphere, features solo guitar interpretations of Monk that capture the spirit of his style while also drawing on guitar influences like Lenny Breau, Joe Pass, and Michael Hedges.
The opening "Blue Monk" summarizes McGowan's approach. A nimble solo leads right into the head, which has the occasional odd note to summon the spirit of the master. Next follows an accomplished solo, filled with walking bass lines and perfectly positioned chords and an endless supply of interesting ideas. At times, McGowan captures the rhythmic inventiveness of Monk, as he does on "Rhythm-A-Ning," but he is also determined to make these tunes his own. To that end there are steady beats and a sustained swing with a ragtime feel, as well as middle sections that wander off into unexpected places. McGowan really settles into the groove on "Bye-Ya," adding an extra bit of spice to the tango rhythm that is essential for the tune to work properly. Only a modern funky "We See" seems like an anachronistic misfire.
And then there are the ballads, beautiful interpretations that recall the pleasant wanderings of New Age guitarists while avoiding the maudlin effect they can produce. Both "Ruby, My Dear" and "'Round Midnight" are taken at a contemplative pace with compelling ideas before the head and plenty of interesting chord choices. "'Round Midnight," in particular, is the album's centerpiece and rightly so; it's arguably Monk's most famous composition, and the one which McGowan takes the furthest into the outer reaches with nebulous arpeggios and plenty of open space.
It would be hard to find a jazz musician who didn't love Monk's music, and equally as hard to find someone who can hit the sweet spot in creating a tribute. Sphere is a perfect showcase for McGowan's skills as an arranger and guitarist, and a worthy entry into the field of solo jazz guitar recordings.
Track Listing: Blue Monk; Rhythm-A-Ning; Bye-Ya; Ruby, My Dear; We See; 'Round
Midnight; Trinkle Tinkle; North of the Sunset; Light Blue; Crepuscle With
Jazz is a continuing revelation. The best show I ever attended was the
Roots Picnic at Penn's Landing in Philadelphia, or was it Robert
Glasper's Experiment at Lincoln Center, or was it Chick Corea with
Brian Blade at Oberlin College? Most of all I enjoy playing guitar and
composing beats with my Brooklyn-based group Space Captain.