It's hard to imagine anything more daunting for an up-and-coming vocalist than to tackle a vocal album of Thelonious Monk materialwordless, no lesswith nothing more than piano accompaniment. Yet that's exactly what Finnish singer Kadi Vija has done here, along with Canadian pianist Lucas Dann. Hitting those crazy intervals and capturing the unique logic of Monk's compositions is a herculean task, and it's to Vija's credit that she does so fearlessly on these ten challenging tracks. Along the way, she brings a distinctive sensibility and rhythmic individuality that allows her to develop her own voice in her interpretation of this repertoire.
There is a clarity and purity to Vija's singing that is rather beguiling, evident especially on the more ruminative pieces. The title track in particular is revealing in its emotional vulnerability, as Vija teases out unadorned, languid notes with understated grace. Dann's sympathetic accompaniment also shines here, as he provides the perfect support with harmonically rich chords and a delicate touch. Vija's wispy lines also get plenty of room to emerge on "Monk's Mood," as she traces the melodic contours of the piece with nuanced skill and subtlety.
On the more up-tempo tracks, Vija's rhythmic vitality comes to the surface, with both renditions of "Bemsha Swing" quite imaginative and creatively phrased. Dann's percussive accompaniment on the alternative take is especially effective in energizing Vija's adventurous re-working of the melody. And listen to the two as they collaborate wonderfully on the bouncy "Booboo's Birthday," with Dann and Vija in perfect rapport as Dann offers a strutting accompaniment that toys with the tempo while Vija saunters alongside him. While Vija's delivery isn't exactly flawless on the jauntier tracksshe sometimes struggles with hitting her upper-range notes consistently and there's some occasional wobble in pitch as wellthe vigorous sense of discovery and bold reinvention of the material tend to outweigh the performance's shortcomings.
With the courage and creativity on display here, there's little doubt that both of these musicians will have more to say in the future. In the meantime, this is a nice tribute to Monk's legacy and a recording that's fully in the spirit of the master's inimitable style.