Around the 100th anniversary of Thelonious Monk’s birth in 2017, there were so many excellent collections of his music released that the previous hour of programming couldn’t contain them all. More Monk Tributes from John Beasley and MONK’estra, the Microscopic Septet and Wadada Leo Smith in this hour of Jazz at 100 Today!
Although one doesn’t usually associate the “warmer, rounder” sound of the trumpet with music of Thelonious Monk, Wadada Leo Smith’s 2017 release, Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk is fresh and inspiring. Consisting of four Monk classics interleaved with Smith’s ruminations on Monk, the solo set provides a new lens for appreciating the compositions of the maestro, much as Steve Lacy’s solo soprano sax explorations did on the disc ˆ in 1985.
Perhaps a more obvious pairing is the playing and arranging of the Microscopic Septet with Monk’s tunes. Coming out of the New York City Downtown Scene forty years ago, the Micros, as C. Michael Bailey writes, “demonstrate a metaphysical kinship to Monk and his sideways musical thinking. Fractured symmetry, musical theory fallout, playing outside the box, nuclear swing: all of these amorphous terms can be applied to both Monk and the Micros… The Micros are Monk experts who possess the same DNA as the master, seamlessly empathetic to his craggy compositional style.”
LA arranger/composer/bandleader, John Beasley (apparently known affectionately as “Killer Beas”) has just completed a three-release sequence of Monk tributes with his wonderful big band, the MONK’estra. Epistrophy, from the Volume 1 of 2016, features a guest appearance from Gary Burton on vibes.
Crepuscule With Nellie. Wadada Leo Smith solo
(Wadada Leo Smith-tp). From Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk. Tum Records. 2017. First released on the 1957 Riverside LP Monk’s Music.
Friday The 13th. Microscopic Septet
(Philip Johnston-ss, Don Davis-as, Mike Hashim-ts, Dave Sewelson-bs, Joel Forrester-p, David Hofstra-b, Richard Dworkin-d). From Friday the 13th: The Micros Play Monk. Cunieform Records. 2011. First released on the 1954 Prestige LP Thelonious Monk Quintet Blows for LP, and later released on the Prestige LP Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins.
Epistrophy. John Beasley and MONK’estra with Gary Burton
From MONK’estra, Vol. 1. Mack Avenue. 2016. First released on a 1948 Blue Note single and included on the LP Genius of Modern Music, Volume 1.
With a gentle lead in, over a fragment of a Monk interview, the MONK’estra’s Oska T, as Jim Worsley writes, “is presented as a runaway train. Dynamic in scope, we hear more substantial solos confronted with a modern big band mentality. Solo credits to trumpeters Brian Swartz and Gabriel Johnson, as well as trombonist Francisco Torres.”
First released by Monk in 1947, Monk returned to Off Minor several times, recording it solo, in a trio, in a quartet with Charlie Rouse and in a septet with John Coltrane. In performance, Monk tended to emphasize the jittery rhythm of the tune, a practice captured by Beasley in his big band arrangement from the third of his three sets MONK’estra Plays John Beasley.
In 2017’s Volume 2, “Evidence, yet another classic, is given perhaps even more open space than the original, soon filled with finger poppin’ bass and drums of equal measure. It paved a groove latched onto with big band magnitude and a high-octane trombone solo.”
Oska T. John Beasley and MONK’estra
From MONK’estra, Vol. 1. Mack Avenue. 2016. First released on the 1964 Columbia LP Big Band and Quartet in Concert.
Off Minor. John Beasley and MONK’estra
From MONK’estra Plays John Beasley. Mack Avenue. 2020. First released on a 1948 Blue Note single and included on the LP Genius of Modern Music, Volume 1.
Evidence. John Beasley and MONK’estra
From MONK’estra, Vol. 2. Mack Avenue. 2017. First released on a 1949 Blue Note single and included on the LP Milt Jackson and Thelonious Monk.
To wrap up our exploration of recent Monk Tribute releases, we’ll return to the Microscopic Septet and a stately version of Pannonica, named for Monk’s patron, in whose home he passed away in February 1982. The tune was first recorded on Monk’s 1956 Brilliant Corners with Sonny Rollins on tenor.
And we’ll return once more to John Beasley and Monk’estra’s most recent release from the series, MONK’estra Plays John Beasley and the mash up of Rhythm-a-Ning and Evidence, featuring Joey DeFrancesco on organ.
In a comprehensive survey of the series on AllAboutJazz, Jim Worsley writes, “Beasley manages to keep all of Monk’s stylings, inflections, melodies, individualities, and, has a field day with the intangible quirkiness. Monk’s innate sense of swing is embodied throughout. It’s all wrapped and intertwined within the scope of a pulsating big band. The arrangements on this three-part masterpiece are a road map of genius. Although the concepts and ideology are dense, he never forgets that music should be fun. Nor does he linger. Changing phrases darting in and out, all expanding on the vision, off-beat rhythms, and dissonance of Monk, brilliantly propel the Monk’estra Trilogy to epic proportions.”
Pannonica. Microscopic Septet
(Philip Johnston-ss, Don Davis-as, Mike Hashim-ts, Dave Sewelson-bs, Joel Forrester-p, David Hofstra-b, Richard Dworkin-d). From Friday the 13th: The Micros Play Monk. Cunieform Records. 2011. First released on the 1957 Riverside LP Brilliant Corners.
Rhythm-a-Ning/Evidence. John Beasley and MONK’estra with Joey DeFrancesco
From MONK’estra Plays John Beasley. Mack Avenue. 2020. First released on the 1958 Atlantic LP Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk.
Thelonious Monk is likely one of the two most covered composers in jazz (with Duke Ellington). While his compositions are immediately recognizable as the work of a singular genius, they retain that distinctive character through the widest range of presentations imaginable. Monk has never gone out-of-style and, delightfully, we can expect that prominence to continue.
Ackermann, Karl. (2017, October 10). AllAboutJazz. Wadada Leo Smith: Solo: Reflections And Meditations On Monk. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/solo-reflections-and-meditations-on-monk-wadada-leo-smith-tum-records-review-by-karl-ackermann.php
Bailey, C. Michael. (2011, November 18). AllAboutJazz. The Microscopic Septet: Friday The Thirteenth: The Micros Play Monk. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/friday-the-thirteenth-the-micros-play-monk-microscopic-septet-cuneiform-records-review-by-c-michael-bailey.php
Worsley, Jim. (2020, December 17). AllAboutJazz. John Beasley: MONK’estra Plays John Beasley. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/monkestra-plays-john-beasley-john-beasley-mack-avenue-records
Worsley, Jim. (2020, December 23). The MONK’estra Trilogy: The Genius Of John Beasley And Thelonious Monk. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/monkestra-the-genius-of-john-beasley-and-theloniousmonk-john-beasley
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