Every jazz pianist stands somewhere in the shadow of Thelonious Monk
(1917-1982), and Eric Reed
has embraced that shadow, with The Dancing Monk
Interpreting the near-mythic pianist/composer's musiclet alone making an entire album of his tunesposes significant challenges to any modern musician, and especially for a pianist. First, Monk's compositions are, indeed, challenging, in and of themselves; full of odd meters, syncopations, and some of the most counter-intuitive melodies ever written. Second, Monk's flat-fingered keyboard work was completely unique and
uniquely intertwined with his music. His piano playing was an integral part of those songs and very much one of the major components of his greatness. It is difficult to imagine one without the other.
Therein rests the conundrum. A modern pianist interpreting this music is faced with the daunting task of separating Monk's music from his piano playing, retaining the compositions, and then bringing something new to the party. The alternative is to risk simply making an analogue copy of performances that are now between forty and sixty years old. It takes real sensitivity to play this music in a fashion that retains what is great about the compositions, without butchering the performance with incongruous pianism. Of course, it is likely this exact challenge that keeps musicians regularly attempting this musical feat, with widely varying degrees of success.
Happily, The Dancing Monk
is largely successful. Reed is a technically gifted playerwhich can be dangerous when over-employed on Monk's odd compositionsbut he manages to compliment the songs with performances that are sensitive to the material as well as being beautifully played. On "Eronel," he plays subtly rubato, adding a very Monk-like quality to the performance without directly imitating the sourcea very nice touch. "Light Blue," finds the piano in the background for a time, comping the melody as stated ably by bassist Ben Wolfe
, before reemerging to take a smooth, flowing workout. On, "Ugly Beauty," drummer McClenty Hunter
adds a very subtle Latin overtone, leaving the framework of the original intact, but adding a completely new flavor.
Reed contributes exactly one original to the date, the title track, where, ironically, he most closely imitates Monk's playing style. It would be highly believable if presented as a long-lost Monk original but, as-is, it is a well-crafted homage to a genius. In the end, The Dancing Monk
works because it takes a canon of unique and highly identifiable music and compliments it rather than trying to completely rework it. In the process, Reed has managed to make these songs sound fresh and interesting, and that might be the highest compliment that can be given to an entire album dedicated to the compositions of someone as singular as Thelonious Monk.