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Thelonious Monk Redux

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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Perhaps there are no better contemporary homages to pianist and composer Thelonious Monk than the ones re-imagined by soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and trombonist Roswell Rudd, as well as by pianist Misha Mengelberg. But the greatest of all is the short one by composer and pianist Heiner Stadler. That seminal album—Tribute to Bird and Monk (Tomato, 1978; Labor Records, 2011)—alone gave evidence that Monk's music would live on for scores of succeeding generations. It also gave notice of Stadler's ingenuity. And it put him in the august company of musicians such as alto saxophonist, flutist and bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy, alto saxohonist Ornette Coleman and a handful of others for the sheer brilliance of his innovative approach to music even beyond Monk's own repertory. The attraction of Monk continues unabated. Here are some of the more recent gems from the musical jewellery store.

The Microscopic Septet

Friday The 13th: The Micros Play Monk

Cuneiform Records

2011

Once the Microscopic Septet gets into character, there is no stopping it. Clearly this is the case with the band's slightly irreverent homage to Monk, Friday The Thirteenth: The Micros Play Monk. Of course, Monk would have it no other way, for no one could play Monk like Monk and The Man never did encourage it. Besides having once postulated that there was no such thing as right or wrong notes, His High Outness paved the way for his music to be played somewhat irreverently and this is what the Microscopic Septet do as the band recreates some of the classic music of the 20th century. Rather cleverly—at least intellectually speaking—the heroic work is done not by the piano, but by the horns and that is probably why the music succeeds to a such an extent, because rather than copy the angularly rhythmic architecture of Monk's music, the band's approach is holistic. Consequently, the marvelous repertory ensemble does find greater comfort in the work of composer and arranger Oliver Nelson's approach, or even that of orchestrator Hall Overton.

The key tracks would be the rousing crescendos of "Friday the 13th," the glittering crescendos of "Evidence" and the timeless swing of "Brilliant Corners." But there is brilliant Monk in the exquisite transposition of the master's music to horns and this is everywhere on the album.

Jimmy Owens

The Monk Project

IPO Recordings

2011

Monk's music was all about time. Few musicians in any era of jazz have had such mastery of the art of time. Only reeds and woodwinds master Anthony Braxton in the modern era comes close. Now trumpeter and flugelhorn player Jimmy Owens pays tribute to this aspect of Monk's music with The Monk Project. Owens' project revolves around not just the overall ingenuity of Monk, but also focuses attention on the masterful display of the aspect of time, in Monk's oeuvre. The result is: even when Owens is growling like jungle blues trumpet stylist Bubber Miley and wailing like Miles Davis, he is actually setting about to examine what happens when a musician slows down the tempo considerably throughout, but keeps the pulse of the music intact; or when he or she trawls in the river of tears, as in the blues, with aching brilliance and plays around the pulse created by the swing of standard Monk. Thus he inadvertently recalls Monk's debt to the blues as via the delta or the plantation in his and Owens's soul.

Owens' of "Blue Monk" is one of the finest in recent memory and struts in a more formal manner than Monk's did when he actually swayed and sashayed in the pool of tears of the 1940s. The inclusion of "It Don't Mean A Thing (If You Ain't Got That Swing)" is not just a tribute to Monk's lineage to its composer, Duke Ellington, but to the proto-historic world of stride piano as well. And while the album is superb throughout, "Brilliant Corners" bristles with singular genius. As do the contributions of Howard Johnson on tuba, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and master percussion colorist and timekeeper extraordinaire, Winard Harper.

Monkadelphia

Crepuscule

Dreambox

2010

Monkadelphia's tribute, Crepuscule is the oldest of these three recordings and what sets it apart is the subtle re-harmonization of Monk's oeuvre by the ensemble from Philly. This has everything to do with the vibraphone of the band's chief progenitor, Tony Miceli. Monk worked with only one vibraphonist of note and that was Milt Jackson—or was it the other way round: Jackson working with Monk? At any rate, the 1954 recording Bags Groove on the Prestige label was the only known testament to this relationship. Several vibes players may have attempted to re-locate the music of Monk to the resonant landscape of that instrument. But none is as memorable as Miceli's. Naturally, the vibraphonist's interpretations focus on the rhythmic aspect of Monk's music, but the bright tubular bells of the vibes makes it a truly memorable experience. For one, it is possible to get melodic, where most drums would not cut it. Miceli is a sublime melodist and his harmonic palette is vast and—while not as steeped in the blues as Jackson—he still pays deep respect to that idiom.

The poetics of "Bemsha Swing" are spectacularly re-constructed with a heavy underpinning of percussion at the opening and throughout the rest of the short piece. Much of the album is up-tempo, compared with Jimmy Owens' as well as compared to many of Monk's own versions, but there is truth and beauty in merely understanding the changes in Monk's music and in playing it with singular individualism. Miceli does this with aplomb. The rustic drums of Jim Miller and the melodic bass of Micah Jones mirrors those players who once graced Monk's quartets and the big fat tenor saxophone of Chris Farr does more than mirror the playing of the great saxophonist Charlie Rouse especially on the hauntingly beautiful "Crepuscule With Nellie."

All of this is proof of the fact that the music of Thelonious Monk is alive and well and ready for new generations of musicians and fans alike.

Tracks and Personnel

Friday The 13th

Tracks: Brilliant Corners; Friday The 13th; Gallop's Gallop; Teo; Pannonica; Evidence; We See; Off Minor; Bye-Ya; Worry Later; Misterioso; Epistrophy.

Personnel: Phillip Johnston: soprano saxophone; Don Davis: alto saxophone; Mike Hashim: tenor saxophone; Dave Samuelson: baritone saxophone; Joel Forrester: piano; David Hofstra: bass; Richard Dworkin: drums.

The Monk Project

Tracks: Bright Mississippi; Well You Needn't; Blue Monk; Stuffy Turkey; Pannonica; Let's Cool One; It Don't Me A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing); Brilliant Corners; Reflections; Epistrophy.

Personnel: Jimmy Owens: trumpet, flugelhorn; Wycliffe Gordon: trombone; Marcus Strickland: tenor saxophone; Howard Johnson: tuba, baritone saxophone; Kenny Barron: piano; Kenny Davis: bass; Winard Harper: drums.

Crepuscule

Tracks: Bemsha Swing; Bright Mississippi; Crepuscule With Nellie; Green Chimneys; Eronel; Humph; Reflections; Skippy; Played Twice; Let's Call This; Bye-Ya.

Personnel: Chris Farr: tenor saxophone; Tony Miceli: vibes; Tom Lawton: piano; Micah Jones: bass; Jim Miller: drums.

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